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A citizen has the right to live with the minimum

António Vieira da Silva
A citizen has the right to live with the minimum

António Vieira da Silva / Photos - Uwe Heitkamp

The former Minister of Labour (68) considers the unconditional basic income (BGE) to be an exciting and challenging topic, but it is more a utopia than a reality. José António Vieira da Silva, supports a social model governed by the right to work and the entitlement to the corresponding retirement subsidy, and he fears that the introduction of the UBI model, which has been widely disseminated, could create a ‘bipolar’ society divided into two classes.

ECO123: Last year, the one hundredth anniversary of the creation of this ministry was celebrated. Would the introduction of the UBI be a good way of marking this occasion?
J.A.V.S.: The Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) is a universal citizen’s income – it goes beyond the scope of one ministry. I have been following the debate on this topic for many years. Now it’s back in the spotlight with the Finnish experiment, and there are also a number of opinions that have helped to highlight this question in the media again. It is a very important change in the model of society; it’s a change in the concept of social security benefit.

Do you believe that this new possibility for an income is closer to reality or to utopia?
At present, I think it is closer to utopia than to a political project. It is a very controversial idea in all political groupings; the main obstacle is that it is socially very difficult to create a consensus about this situation. From the point of view of the conceptual model and the organisation of society, I am not opposed in principle, except for a concern about the risk of creating a division, a society with two classes. It is a risk that exists. One part that lives off the UBI and the other part that works, that earns an income, and regards people who live off the UBI as being paid for by the ones who work. It is the risk of creating a society that works at two different speeds. I think I can call it a dystopia, which is the opposite of a utopia. The risk of a society, which has already been created in fiction, of those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’, where those who are ‘out’ are fed by those who are ‘in’, because this is essential for them to live. I do not want to say that this never happens in our present-day society, but I have this fear.

And if I asked you to create a model or a financial system that made it possible for a UBI to be adopted in a society?
The ideal model is the model that guarantees a level of income throughout people’s lives, and creates a series of stimuli for them to be able to achieve higher levels of well-being through their efforts or their creativity.

And from the point of view of the budget or the financial system?

Antonio Vieire da Silva

It is a complete rethink of our society. I am not discarding this possibility, I don’t think it impossible that we will be challenged to try and implement a model of this kind. However, I wouldn’t want us to be obliged to plan it on the basis of a society that restricts work to just a few people. I would want us to get there, and we are talking about utopias here, by striving for equity. I am very afraid of a society that is divided into two, in which some people work and receive their income mainly from their labours, and others who receive their income because society thinks that they have to have access to consumption in order to survive.

Would it be possible to conduct a pilot experiment in Portugal, perhaps for a year with a few hundred people?
I don’t know if we have the conditions for experimenting, but I think it is possible to do so. We would have to think more about its feasibility from a practical point of view; we need to know more about the Finnish experiment which is coming into being now and I don’t think they will draw their first conclusions for two or three years.

Would society be prepared for this?
There would need to be a process of reflection, of social mobilisation, for this to be socially acceptable. Part of the society in which we live, especially at times of crisis and uncertainty, is horrified by a degree of redistribution. That’s why today, one part of Europe thinks that the other part of Europe is living at their expense.

But when a government gives each adult €500 per month, this uncertainty would diminish for citizens…
I don’t not have much doubt about that; now, it’s the process of transition to such a situation that is very complex.

And are you in favour of the concept of a universal benefit?
I can’t help being in favour of this concept. The positive point, undoubtedly, is the idea that a human being, a citizen who is a member of a community, has the right to live with the minimum, with a basic level that guarantees his or her citizenship. A society that does not recognise this right is an incomplete society. But I don’t think it would be possible to implement without a very broad social consensus.

What disadvantages can you see in the implementation of this proposal?
I recognise the merits of this initiative; it is a positive direction, but I can see that there are problems. My problem is not the same as the problem of those people who criticise the UBI as being an incentive to idleness. I think that everyone who is born has the right to benefit from what nature gives us; but I am concerned that the disincentive that it could represent to being part of organised labour might translate into an impoverishment of the capacity to create wealth. If so, we could be diminishing people’s capacity for innovation when we reduce the stimulus of remuneration through their salary to achieve more, to be more inventive.

Antonio Vieire da Silva

Seen from a different point of view, couldn’t it actually be more liberating?
There are contradictory aspects here. There are obvious advantages, such as ensuring that certain types of human activity that are restricted by the difficulty they face in getting funding from commercial sources, of an artistic or creative nature, can have a different way of developing. But that negative side that I mentioned can also exist. Then there is another way of thinking: I have already seen people from the side of what we can call capitalism arguing in favour of this universal benefit as a guarantee of purchasing power, given a society that could develop towards a significant reduction in the need for human labour.

Are we talking about humans being replaced by machines?
In the middle of the 21st century, if the goods produced by robots have no one who is able to purchase them, the whole economy will collapse. That’s where my doubts begin to multiply. Because we would be running a serious risk of segmenting society, this is in speculative terms, between those who access well-being through paid work and those who access it through a universal subsidy in order to be consumers. I am afraid that we would be heading towards a bipolar society from the point of view of social recognition.

It is forecast that there will be a fall in the number of jobs in the future. Could the UBI maintain or increase the level of consumption?
I’m not certain about that as this prophecy was made 200 years ago. Since the first industrial revolution until now, human society has managed to create more social needs that require jobs than those that are destroyed. Not many decades ago, there wasn’t the mobility that exists today, such as tourism, for example, which has created millions of jobs all over the world in various sectors. Technical progress has destroyed the creation of some jobs and led to the appearance of others. We have millions of people in extreme poverty, but never have so many people emerged from poverty as in recent decades either. We live in a complex and contradictory society.

In essence, how does the UBI differ from other social benefits?
The other social benefits are for covering risks and other eventualities, as in other countries. If a person is ill or unemployed, if they are disabled. This is about dignity. The philosophical and doctrinal concept is different. This is not seen as an instrument of transition, as a kind of lesser evil. The Minimum Income Scheme (RSI) is seen as a way of achieving genuine integration, which will be integration through an income from work. They receive that support, but on condition that they register in a process of social integration that will enable them to cease benefiting from this type of support. This is not the concept underlying the basic citizen’s income. I would like to think that our society would guarantee the right to work for everyone, it is not a duty nor an obligation, but a right.

There is always the possibility of waiting to see the results of the Finnish experiment.
From what I understand, the idea in the Finnish experiment is that the benefit will be given to unemployed people. But if they find work it is not taken away from them in contrast with the traditional benefits that replace income from work. We are in a different paradigm, and one of the things that they will see is how people react. Will they adapt to this standard of living? Will they stop working? Will they keep looking for work?

In Portugal: €500 for each citizen is €6,000 per year; for eight million adults, that makes €48 billion. Disregarding other expenses, does the ministry have a plan of this kind?
Antonio Vieire da SilvaThat implies a rupture, I doubt that this can be done on a national scale; it might need an approach covering a wider area. The total of social benefits paid in Portugal is a little over €30 billion, corresponding to everything: pensions, unemployment benefits, child allowances. Then even more would be needed because the social benefits are over €500. It is a highly fascinating and challenging topic. My question is about the concept of society that we think is most appropriate. Finland is applying this to two or three thousand people, a small sample. We are talking about experiments. It is interesting to see the results and see how people react, but this must be accompanied by a reflection in society about values. From a conceptual point of view, I am not opposed to this idea, but I am not an advocate of it either because I still have some doubts, and always have had. When we launched a basic income from the point of view of combating extreme poverty, we also thought about what society is capable of accepting and tolerating.

With the implementation of the UBI, it would be possible to abolish pensions.
No basic income policy can replace this type of distribution (pension). I don’t see a UBI as a substitute for all social benefits, otherwise a second disincentive to working is being introduced. The basic idea is that people receive €500 but if they want to work, as engineers or farmers, they will receive more and it gives them the right to an immediate income, but it should also give them the right to a future proportional income.

But workers would be valued while they were working …
The income that people have today is not just their net salary. From their work, they receive not only what they take home but also what gives them the right to a future benefit and which is to a certain extent in proportion to what they earn and what is deducted. People’s remuneration also includes the contributions they are paying to Social Security so that they will have an income in the future. I think this is an essential factor for social equilibrium to function and for there to be a dynamics of change. No society progresses without asymmetries. Inequalities are a different matter, but if I earn more because I work more, because I am more creative or exert myself more, I will have a higher income. A society that sees this stimulus cut is a society that is dead from the point of view of innovation.

One of the proposals of the UBI is that, if you work more, you will earn more, but will keep the subsidy of €500, even after stopping work.
A pension depends on what you earn while you are working. You are earning today and creating the conditions for earning in the future. Imagine that someone earns the income of €500, plus €2,000 from their work. When they stop working, will they just get €500? That’s not possible. Let’s imagine a world where the UBI exists. When a person works to have a higher income, it is essential that the work allows them, immediately and in deferred terms, to have a higher level of income. Societies organise themselves in different ways so that this happens, it is a social insurance.

Is it the end of pensions?
On a speculative level, if this basic income is also guaranteed during old age, the effort that a person has to make for this to be higher becomes less. That is already guaranteed, it’s not adding but differentiating. Imagine a society where a person earns while they are active and afterwards they only get the citizen’s income? That is a system in which many people would not want to live.

There are many pensioners who receive pensions that are lower than €300 or €400. Wouldn’t the UBI be an improvement in such cases?
That’s where we agree, and that’s why we created the “complemento solidário” (solidarity complement) so that no older person has to live off less than the poverty threshold, which is €420 in Portugal. The idea is to guarantee a basic income of more than €200 or €300. What we have are basic pensions and then, for those people who have no other income, an income differential. It is a philosophy that is inspired by the same concerns as the UBI, but follows a slightly different path.

So what is the path to follow?
We have to fight for a more dignified and fairer world, the paths are not always linear. On a global level, what does this mean? That there are regions in the world that can’t do anything but receive the basic income? Because they have fewer skills or are less well prepared? Or is this only something for richer countries? It can’t be. If the world was organised and fair, would 90% of Africans receive the UBI? Would the world be fairer if everyone had the right to this basic remuneration? It corresponds to an appropriate anthropological vision. In human society, when it was organised with much less stratification, everyone had a UBI. It was what nature gave them. Then came stratification and the appropriations. The social groups that were created took away some of this basic income. We were all born with a UBI: it was planting by hand and harvesting the fruit.

Thank you.

This interview is from Editon 17, Spring 2017 and is still current.

About the author

Alexandre Moura (44). Born in Faro, has a degree in Communication Sciences Journalism. He has been a professional journalist since 2000 for the national and regional press, television and radio in the areas of current affairs, culture, sport and general information.

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