BIEN Congress 2014 ( part three)


I was most interested in strategies of establishing a BI through democratic processes in a developed economy like Canada. That was my thread through these panels and so there is not much in my relation of the congress about other topics, such as; what they are doing in Namibia, what they are thinking in Japan, how BI effects participation, BI and migration, and of course, funding BI.


I started off with ""The legal protection of Basic Income, part one, Basic Income for keeps; a constitutional solution for a political problem?" It does not seem to me that the question posed in the title was really answered, except indirectly. The points I gleaned were; that democracy requires substantial equality, not just formal equality. Few people present would dispute that.

There was some discussion of just what kind of right a Basic Income is. This is an important question to answer, and can effect strategy a great deal.

Calling it any kind of economic right would not fly, because you cannot define a society just as a market. Markets do not produce freedom, markets cannot be distinguished from regulatory systems.

In one of these South American countries, the idea of an alternative social council was presented during their last constitutional crisis. I am not sure if this actually got implemented, but instead of using courts to decide the constitutionality of new laws and measures, a review council of independent citizens would do it. Judges are not good for this role, they are too conservative.

One conclusion from this was that in pursuing BI, democracy should be highlighted, not social equality. It is much harder to argue against more democracy. Besides, if you can get real democracy, equality will take care of itself. BI would greatly facilitate a deliberative democracy; people would have the leisure to deliberate.


There was discussion of the history of attempts to disestablish social welfare schemes which came close to a Basic Income. There was the Speenhamland system in England, which was attacked with rhetoric very similar to that used today. It was replaced by the workhouse system in the 1837 reforms.

The Hartz reforms in Germany in 2003 replaced maintenance with a "pressure to employment". By 2010 there was a court decision which rolled it back a little; the way benefits were calculated offended the dignity of recipients in contradiction to the German constitution.

In Canada we had the Gosselin case. The supreme court ruled that inadequate social assistance for people under thirty did not violate their constitutional rights. The Canadian supreme court tends to have a "neoliberal lens".

The question was asked; why should we trust judges, given the kind of "dignity" decisions they have come up with?

democracy or equality?

So, BI should not be a legal issue, but one of inequality. But we had already heard that democracy is a stronger card. But why do we have inequality? Answer; the growing power of finance. I could point out that we have had inequality before; there was never any golden age of equality.

But it was thought that there needed to be political involvement of the public beyond mere delegation. Yes, that is called participatory and deliberative democracy. That is another topic I think about a lot.

Some thought that "democracy" had to be defined more exactly. Another pointed out that Aristotle thought the poor had power when they decided to use it. Another asked whether a BI would enhance "Civic Virtue".

Indian experiment

Back at the plenary, we heard about the India pilot project. There was a lady in a sari to tell us all about it.

As a scientific experiment, controls were needed. There was discussion of how villages were randomly selected. It was found that even when a BI is small, it has a big liberating effect. In these villages, there were 300 different welfare programs, but uptake was very low. No money meant debt, meaning moneylending, meaning landlordism.

However, BI was "transformational". It produced better productivity effects. Women benefited the most, because they were able to spend more time caring for the elderly and children.

This was a rural area. How did it work in urban areas? In the urban areas, there was violent resistance; attacks on their workers. Even in the rural areas, there was a lot of suspicion at first. But eventually the only people who did not support the project where the moneylenders. It was thought that their views could be discounted.

The only people who did not want the payments were those who did not need them. I note that here is the simple solution for the "banker's wife" problem of a BI system; those who do not need will not bother to apply.

The trouble with pilots is; what happens when they are over? In this case, the benefits lasted long after the program had ended. (It ran for one year. ) The same was noted in the Dauphin experiment in Canada, and in the Namibian one.

I was daydreaming about elephants by this time

The next day, we started with a paradox. Pushing a BI without context can be self defeating. Consider polarized world views, as in Lakoff's famous "Don't think of an Elephant". What is meant is that people are conditioned to a lot of negative stereotypes about people on government assistance. We have to overcome "confirmation bias", the tendency of people to want to hear only what confirms their beliefs.

However, Canadians are very progressive people. 77% value social equality. The only things which would not fly are; something which would bankrupt the country, that which reduces work involvement and motivation, and what creates greater administrative complexity.

All that is needed is to reframe the values away from the conservative view. There is not much point trying to accommodate hard right conservative or libertarian views. These are based on the world view of the stubborn, maladjusted loner and bully, bringing on exactly the threats he claims to protect us from.


There was some play about an incremental as opposed to all at once introduction of a BI plan. The case for incremental introduction is that it is easier to correct flaws.

Some argued strongly against the incremental approach. The Bolsa Familia program in Brazil was supposed to be the start of incremental steps to a full BI. It has gone no further than when it started. I am inclined to the all at once approach, from what I know about the history of social programs in Canada, especially health care.

Someone pointed out that a name change for the idea might be in order. Among younger people, the word "Basic" is starting to be used in a derogatory sense. "Hey, that is pretty basic" means it is pretty bad.

We heard from Joe Soss, an American politician. Here was somebody with actual practical experience. He felt that there was a lack of infrastructure for democracy in the US., meaning, people have no means of really influencing policy, no way of even deliberating together without outside perception management. I thought that this was the case in Canada too, maybe to a less degree that the states. Soss thought more vibrant labor organizations are needed, as well as a more "participatory logic".


Enno Schmidt, artist and film maker, and cofounder of the Swiss BI referendum, said that things were easier for them because the Swiss people have an instrument; the referendum. A direct democracy principle has been built into their constitution and many issues are decided that way.

Schmidt says; always go for the maximum. And he is, even though the press in Switzerland is against the initiative, as are the "entrepreneur clubs".

In contrast the European initiative lead by the UBIE (Universal Basic Income Europe) was more modest. It also failed to gain enough signatures to trigger the referendum. They may try a new campaign in 2015-16. This person had one of the few lines which drew a good laugh from the audience; "If plan A fails, there are 25 more letters in the alphabet."

However, I know that the "Eurocrats" who run the European community really do not like referendums. Only two initiatives have succeeded with the European government. They either had lots of money, or a wide organization.


Dr. Louise Haag, a professor in England and a "regional coordinator" for BIEN, was one of the better speakers, with really good ideas and real speaking ability. She urged that that BI should not be presented in a moralistic way, like it is a radical idea. It should be shown as a natural step.

It should not be presented in a legalistic way either. Make institutional arguments. We cannot measure needs exactly; the data is not there. So we must use a blanket approach.

Do not talk about "the welfare state". There are many kinds of welfare states. Do not talk about the "Swedish model" because it does not exist anymore. Sweden now has a two tiered labor market for young and old workers.

There is always a tension between the market and the state. All rights will try to take some goods or values out of the market. Markets cannot exist without state regulation. Market regulation can benefit the state, citizens, or private corporations.

BI is not an obstacle to regaining a welfare state or a "Swedish model", but a necessary next step.


Someone from Argentina spoke pretty well. His theme was that trying to put social guarantees into the constitution is doing it wrong; trying to do it through the back door. We must pay attention to power. Constitutional changes usually do not change the organization of power.

The Latin American problem has been executive power, meaning presidential systems. Social initiatives keep getting vetoed.

He went into greater depth. Setting a social program into the constitution limits government's ability to govern and to adapt the program to need. Besides, as one questioner said, if you can't get it as policy, how will you ever get it into the constitution?

freedom to grow

I was not impressed by one old fellow from Belgium. He is a Liberal apologist who talks about BI as "maximizing freedom". Freedom for what? From what?

He also talked about BI as a tool for growth. Growth of what exactly? Liberals always talk about economic growth as though that was obvious, and that growth is necessarily a good thing. But will more growth make lives better? How can we "grow" further without growing more environmental depletion?


And that was the "sit and be talked at" part of the congress. There was so much information that it could become sensory overload. By the time the conference was in its third and last day, or fourth day for me, my old brain was getting pretty tired. It got hard to stay focussed.