In his 16th-century satire Utopia, Thomas More imagined a society where every citizen is given a guaranteed income as a deterrent to crime and as an alternative to punishment: “Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody's under the frightful necessity of becoming first a thief, and then a corpse.”
The idea of handing out money to everyone as their individual right may seem radical, but it’s not necessarily a novel one. Milton Friedman favored it. Martin Luther King, Jr., envisioned some version of it. And more recently — primarily during his candidacy in the U.S. presidential elections in 2020 — Andrew Yang advocated for it.
The concept of universal basic income (UBI) is often touted as an elixir to the modern maladies of society, but it isn’t without its detractors. On the one hand, UBI has the potential to increase the bargaining power for workers, create new jobs, and alleviate poverty. On the other hand, where will the money come from? Who will pay for it? And what happens to the welfare programs already in place?
These questions are central to Jurgen De Wispelaere’s research. For the last 25 years, Jurgen has been a part of studies testing the viability of UBI — including one in Finland where 2,000 unemployed citizens were given a monthly stipend of €560 for two years with no strings attached.
One of the challenges that policies like UBI face is that there is no one version of it which applies across the board; it is characterized for the most part in theoretical and nebulous terms, and it looks different depending on the context in which it is discussed.
“In Finland, for example, [UBI discussions] were all about modernizing the labor market. In Canada, it was all about anti-poverty,” Jurgen says. “In the US, a lot of it is around the automation debate, about robots stealing jobs. And in Latin America, there's a lot around gender, and feminism. Basic income from a gender perspective may look differently from an automation perspective.”
But with its increasing popularity in modern socio-political discourse, it is difficult to dismiss the merits of a basic income, especially in light of the modern crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the jury is still out on whether or not basic income could actually succeed, or if it’s simply an endeavor doomed to failure.
More trials and more experiments are needed, both on small and large scales. It is also necessary to redefine the metrics for measuring their success.
Jurgen says that there are many subtle ways in which these experiments may have policy influence, and one of the things they’re looking at is the way the results of these experiments on UBI are influenced by other external factors.
“If you ask me whether the Finnish experiment has been successful, then the answer really very much depends on what you mean by success,” he says. “The people who basically think that it was a total failure just don't understand the context in which this happened. People often argue and say, ‘should we do more experiments?’”
And Jurgen’s answer to that is a solid ‘yes,’ because there is no other alternative at the moment. “Because we don't have actual governments who are willing to do it, what they are willing to do is an experiment.”
As it stands now, the concept of basic income remains a balancing act that no one is quite certain can be pulled off — at least to the degree that we can perceive lasting benefits. One thing is certain, however. There is still a lot of research to be done into the politics and the social policy regarding basic income, what it would look like, and how it would fit into the already established frameworks across different cultures. And Jurgen’s research has only begun to scratch its surface.
Jurgen was initially an occupational therapist, and his job involved helping people with disabilities and people in rehabilitation programs to enter the labor market.
“I was struck by this idea that we're trying to get people with impairments into a labor market where most people already have a lot of trouble functioning, and there were a lot of paradoxes going on in the practical field,” he says.
These paradoxes led him to the study of philosophy, eventually writing his dissertation on the concept, history, and philosophy of work. It was during this time that he was introduced to the concept of basic income.
“It was only a couple of paragraphs in my Master's dissertation back in the day,” he says. “But once you start working on UBI, you can't really leave it.”
Jurgen’s research on UBI has brought him to different places, literally spanning oceans and continents. Initially based in Belgium, he moved to London and then Ireland before a short sojourn in Australia. He has also lived in Canada, Barcelona, Finland, and Argentina.
“My very peculiar situation is that I effectively live on the other side of the world from where I work,” he says. “I officially work in Latvia, and I'm also affiliated with Finland, and I live in Chile.”
These days Jurgen is based in the south of Chile, where his partner (also an academic) found work. And though he’s based in South America, he continues to primarily study European UBI policies. He is currently guest editing a special issue of the European Journal of Social Security, a special issue on the policy impact of European Basic Income experiments.