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Is a Penny a Month a Basic Income? A Historiography of the Concept of a Threshold in Basic Income

Winner of the 2021 BIS essay contest

Toru Yamamori ORCID logo
From the journal Basic Income Studies

Abstract

Does a penny per month constitute a Basic Income? Were that penny to be paid individually, universally, and unconditionally, the answer would be ‘yes’, following the definition of Basic Income given by some of its leading advocates, be it organisations like the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) or prominent scholars such as Philippe Van Parijs. Some might be puzzled as to how this could be ‘a capitalist road to communism’, or give us ‘freedom as the power to say no’, both of which have been advocated by prominent researchers. The purpose of this paper is not to argue for or against their definition, but rather to situate it historiographically, enabling fruitful discussion. The paper will show how there was a widely shared assumption in the 1970s and 80s, at the early stages of both academic articulations and public discussion, that Basic Income comes with some notion of a threshold or level to be taken as a minimum or as adequate. The paper goes on to outline three issues that arise once the concept of a threshold is dropped from the definition. Examined in addition are five justifications for doing so. Much like any other idea, the concept of Basic Income is a social construct. By situating it here within a historical perspective, we wish to facilitate academic discussion regarding both the achievements and erasures that have occurred as a consequence of the concept’s academic refinement—refinement that is in itself majorly indebted to BIEN and Van Parijs.


Corresponding author: Toru Yamamori, Faculty of Economics, Doshisha University, 601 Genbu-cho, Kamigyo, Kyoto, 602-8580, Japan, E-mail: .

Funding source: Japan Society for the Promotion of Science

Award Identifier / Grant number: 19K12621

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank above all Bill Jordan, Malcolm Torry, Philip Vince (sadly deceased in 2015), and Phillipe Van Parijs, who first welcomed me to the international Basic Income Community. I visited Jordan, Torry, and Vince in 2001. Their warm welcome prompted me to start working on the topic in English – a language entirely foreign to me. I presented a paper at BIEN’s congress in Barcelona in 2004 where Van Parijs was the chair of the session, and not only gave me a warm and encouraging comment, but also kindly replied more properly on my behalf to a criticism from a participant who had conflated Basic Income with Negative Income Tax from my argument. Phillipe Van Parijs disentangled the two in my place. Meeting him in this way led me to both join BIEN and to realise the paramount importance of definitions. I would also like to thank all the people who joined the discussion at the working group for the definition at the BIEN’s 2016 Congress, which I chaired, as well as to thank those who joined the discussion at the working group for the Clarification of Basic Income Definition, which was established by the decision of BIEN’s General Assembly 2019, and for which I am the appointed co-chair together with Annie Miller. On the former occasion, the trust and support both from co-chairs of BIEN at that time (Louise Haagh and Karl Widerquist) and from delegates from the group that initially submitted a motion (I cannot name all, but especially Olaf Michael Ostertag, Adriaan Planken, and Gabriele Schmidt) was vital and I appreciate it. Van Parijs and Walter van Trier generously read the earlier draft, replied to my questions, and sent me scanned copies of historical materials related to the topic of the draft (Van Parijs, 1986a, 1986b, 1989). Rositza Alexandrova, John Baker, Jurgen de Wispelaere, Jordan, Télémaque Masson, Miller, and Peter Sloman also read the earlier draft and gave me encouraging and insightful comments, for all of which I am immensely grateful. Regarding the Dutch usage of ‘basis-inkomen’, I am grateful to van Trier and Anton Jäger for their enlightening correspondences, and to Liza Silvius at the Jan Tinbergen Archive of Erasmus University Rotterdam for her generous assistance. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) Congress, 18–21 August 2021, and I am encouraged by the friendly discussion there. Lastly, I would like to acknowledge the positive comments from the anonymous reviewers of the journal. Notwithstanding the influence of others, the views expressed in this paper (and any associated mistakes) are entirely my own and unrelated to the people from whom I’ve learnt so much in the years.

  1. Research funding: Work underlying parts of this paper was supported by a grant from the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (19K12621).

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Received: 2021-09-30
Accepted: 2022-01-11
Published Online: 2022-05-11

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