During a recent cabinet shuffle, Premier Philippe Couillard caused some surprise when he mandated new employment minister François Blais to implement a guaranteed minimum income in Quebec. It’s a fashionable idea right now: Finland announced at the end of 2015 that it would gradually establish a guaranteed minimum income starting next year.
What’s fascinating about this proposition is it finds support from the left and the right — even at extreme ends of the political spectrum. Thus, the father of neoliberal thought, Milton Friedman, was an ardent promoter of it. In Canada, Hugh Segal, the former Conservative elder statesman who helped get Stephen Harper elected in 2006, has supported this idea for years.
It’s not for nothing that Minister Blais, whom one wouldn’t identify with the left, is responsible for the portfolio. As a former researcher, he was an academic expert on the subject, having produced a number of studies on it. It should be noted as well that the current centre-right Finnish government isn’t to be confused with a social-democratic party.
On the left, the idea of a guaranteed minimum income has seduced many political parties and social movements. In the course of the 2014 provincial election in Quebec, the platform of Québec Solidaire proposed a guaranteed minimum income of $12,600 per year. The Finnish program will provide close to the same amount at €800, though the cost of living is much higher there than here.
That a neoliberal government like the one we have in Quebec, which has sought by all means since coming to power to reduce the size and role of the state, is suddenly enthusiastic about a guaranteed minimum income should arouse suspicion. Like they say, the devil is in the details, and that’s where we should focus our attention.
A guaranteed income program would replace all other financial support programs, for example those under Quebec jurisdiction, including social assistance and student financial assistance. In return, all Quebeckers would receive the same amount of money without regard to their socioeconomic status or state of health. All Quebeckers? Not necessarily. The Québec Solidaire proposition, like the Finnish project, would apply only to low-income persons. Of the different proposed models, some apply only to adults, others to everyone from birth (replacing, in that case, family allowances). It raises the first large question for Blais and his project.
One of the main advantages of a minimum income program, recognized equally by the left and the right, is found in the realm of administrative efficiency. The innumerable admissibility criteria of various social programs, the fluctuations in amounts received based on those criteria, and the bureaucratic apparatus necessary for their management disappears with the implementation of a guaranteed minimum income. A large number of administrative tasks would be eliminated. Hundreds, even thousands, of employees would be affected.
I use the word “affected” with care, because this is one aspect of the application of a minimum income that needs to be the object of careful scrutiny. State employees dedicated to the provision of current social programs don’t merely fill out and approve paperwork. Their role is also, for example, to help recipients of social assistance with job hunting or professional retraining.
While this would free bureaucrats from burdensome administrative tasks that provide little social benefit, we can only hope that the same effort will be devoted to accompanying people who need support. But evidently, the opposite is also possible: we could seize the opportunity of the guaranteed income project to eliminate a large number of public sector posts and also reduce the “qualitative” support available to people in need. This is one of the favourite arguments of right-wing adherents of a minimum income. In the spirit of Friedman, it is the bare minimum that the state can provide to the most deprived; everyone else can manage. It’s a real Trojan horse: reduce the size and role of the state under the guise of noble and moral ends.
Nevertheless, I believe it’s possible to do judo with the right’s arguments to serve the objectives of solidarity and equality. If Blais’ proposed reform becomes concrete, the left wings of the parties in the national assembly, if indeed any still exist, should of course insist on the unconditional universality of its application.
But regardless of the improvements that could be made, the simple fact of implementing a guaranteed minimum income could transform Quebec’s political imagination. Once the principle of such a program is established, it would eliminate the stigmatization of recipients of social assistance and even of “spoiled” students. Everyone will be, symbolically, on equal socioeconomic footing. This would permit future parties further to the left to improve on a pre-existing social measure, even if the original version is tainted by neoliberal objectives.
Guaranteed income programs have many defenders among those who reject unlimited growth. Indeed, from the perspective of achieving economic degrowth, it is the poorest and most fragile who would be the first to feel the negative effects in the short term. A guaranteed minimum income would mitigate those immediate impacts. In this regard, Samuel Alexander, co-director of Simplicity Institute, has written an instructive chapter on this in his passionate work, Décroissance: Vocabulaire pour une nouvelle ère (Degrowth: Vocabulary for a new era), published by Écosociété. This book is an essential guide for thinking about the new economic and political world.
This article originally appeared in the French edition of Ricochet and has been translated.