Which way forward?

For reasons explained at length elsewhere (Van Parijs 1995), a coherent and plausible conception of social justice requires us to aim, with some important qualifications, for an unconditional basic income at the highest level that is economically and ecologically sustainable, and on the highest scale that is politically imaginable. But while a defensible long-term vision is important, precise proposals for modest, immediately beneficial and politically feasible steps are no less essential. The sort of general but household-tested, means-tested and willingness-to-work-tested guaranteed minimum scheme that is now in place with many variants in most EU countries (including, most recently, Portugal) is a fundamental step in the right direction. But whatever the well-meaning “insertion” or “integration” conditions, it cannot avoid generating traps whose depth increases with the generosity of the scheme and whose threat increases as so-called “globalisation” sharpens inequalities in market earning power. In countries in which guaranteed minimum schemes have been operating for a while, these traps and the dependency culture said to be associated with it risk triggering off a political backlash and the dismantling of what has been achieved. But they have also been prompting progressive moves in the form of basic income and related proposals. Like the fight for universal suffrage, the fight for basic income is not an all-or-nothing affair. This is no game for purists and fetishists, but for tinkerers and opportunists. Without going all the way to even a partial basic income, the following three types of proposals are plausible candidates – more or less plausible, depending on each country’s institutions, and in particular its tax and social security context – as the most promising next step: (1) an individual tax credit, (2) a household-based regressive negative income tax, (3) a modest participation income.