Basic Income

In This Review

Basic Income: A Radical Proposal for a Free Society and a Sane Economy
By Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght
Harvard University Press, 2017
400 pp.
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Basic Income: A Guide for the Open-Minded
By Guy Standing
Yale University Press, 2017
392 pp.
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Is the world—or at least some countriesready for a basic income? These two books argue strongly in the affirmative. Such a policy involves the government providing cash grants to every member of society at a level that could sustain life: an amount equal to one-quarter of GDP per capita would suffice, suggest Van Parijs and Vanderborght. The size of the grants could be affected by various factors, such as the recipient’s age and level of need, and could be conditioned on grantees meeting certain behavioral requirements, such as preventing truancy in their school-age children. Van Parijs and Vanderborght, however, prefer a universal, unconditional cash grant—as does Standing. Van Parijs and Vanderborght’s book is more scholarly than Standing’s and explores the history of basic-income schemes going all the way back to sixteenth-century Antwerp. Standing, for his part, usefully examines present-day pilot projects in Finland, the Netherlands, and the Canadian province of Ontario.

Both books summarize the existing empirical research on basic incomes and the various ideological and practical objections that economists have put forth. And both books address the question of how rich and poor countries could finance basic-income schemes. In India, for example, a basic income that would lift millions out of extreme poverty could be comfortably financed by eliminating numerous subsidies, such as those for electricity and gasoline, that mainly benefit higher-income families. Finally, both books emphasize how a basic income would bring about not only economic benefits but also greater freedom of choice for individuals; evidence suggests that most recipients would make good decisions about how to spend the money. Puzzlingly, however, neither book discusses the potential impact that a basic income might have on birthrates—possibly positive for countries with declining populations but possibly negative in the many more countries where populations continue to rise.