Senator Woo - Motion to Encourage the Government to Evaluate the Cost and Impact of Implementing a National Basic Income Program—Motion in Amendment—Debate Continued

The Senate

Motion to Encourage the Government to Evaluate the Cost and Impact of Implementing a National Basic Income Program—Motion in Amendment—Debate Continued

March 28, 2017


The Honourable Senator Yuen Pau Woo :

I rise to speak in support of Motion 51, originally proposed by Senator Eggleton and amended by Senator Bellemare. Previous speakers have been unanimous in their support for this motion, and they have made a number of excellent arguments with respect to the equity, efficiency and social justice grounds for a guaranteed basic income.

Today, I wish to speak briefly to a more fundamental matter, namely that a guaranteed basic income is a question of freedom and dignity.

I believe that freedom is not just about the right to act as one chooses, but is also about having the capability to do so. Freedom is an end in itself and therefore an important social value, but it is also a means for individuals to work towards other ends, such as a fulfilling career, acquiring goods or artistic pursuits.

Unfortunately, we are not born equally free, at least not in the sense that I describe freedom. Our intrinsic freedom as individuals is constrained by social arrangements, including the nature of markets, socio-cultural norms and values, and barriers to mobility based on history, tradition and, often, prejudice.

As the Nobel Laureate in economics, Amartya Sen, has explained, freedom has a "constitutive" role as well as an "instrumental" one. The constitutive role refers to substantive freedoms of elementary capabilities, such as being able to avoid starvation, undernourishment and premature mortality, as well as the freedoms that are associated with being literate, numerate and enjoying political participation. The instrumental role of freedom, on the other hand, has to do with the way that different rights, opportunities and entitlements contribute to the expansion of human freedom as a whole.

A guaranteed basic income can be an important plank in advancing an individual's freedom, both in the constitutive and the instrumental senses. Providing the means for individuals to address their basic needs is a way of giving them the freedom to develop and expand their capabilities for even more freedom.

We have heard other senators talk about the efficiency benefits of a guaranteed basic income. The proposed pilot projects envisaged by motion 51 will test the size and scope of these benefits, but we should not lose sight of the intrinsic value of a guaranteed income in supporting the freedoms of individuals.

For example, an individual on a guaranteed basic income who chooses to use that income security to further her education is, in effect, exercising a freedom that was not previously available to her. In this case, the efficiency gains from that choice will be found not in any reduction of social benefits during her time in school, but in the enhancement of her human capital that can be applied in future employment.

In the same way, colleagues, the advent of the gig economy, which employs a significant and increasing portion of workers, creates greater income insecurity for many people and, therefore, reduces their freedom. According to a 2016 report by the McKinsey Global Institute, as much as 30 per cent of the working age populations in the United States and Europe are engaged in what it calls independent work.

Statistics Canada reports have also highlighted a steady increase in the portion of self-employed workers over the past 25 years. In 2016, it stood at 2.8 million Canadians. This figure, of course, covers all types of self-employment, including that of affluent professionals. However, there can be little doubt about the growing number of Canadians in precarious employment.

A guaranteed basic income cannot only serve as a buffer for precarious employment, but can also be the very safety net that allows innovators, artists and other dreamers to pursue ventures that generate new economic opportunities to mitigate the precariousness of employment and to create meaning for themselves and for society.

If the gig economy is really the way of the future, as many people think it is, how can we make it not only less threatening for individuals but also more rewarding for them and for society? From the perspective of expanding freedoms, the gig economy may be precisely what many people are looking for, but only if their basic income insecurity can be overcome.

We should not, however, be misled by the view that a guaranteed income is a sufficient condition for the expansion of freedoms and hence is a panacea for addressing social inequities related to employment, health, education and so on. While a well- designed guaranteed basic income program could eliminate the need for many other forms of social assistance and the bureaucracy that comes with it, there will continue to be barriers to freedom that are based not on income adequacy but on social arrangements and cultural norms and values, as well as old-fashioned prejudice.

The state has an interest in ensuring that its citizens can exercise their most basic freedoms by providing a guaranteed income, but the state also has to ensure that other measures are in place to advance the instrumental freedoms of the population as a whole.

Insofar as a guaranteed basic income is about enhancing fundamental freedoms of individuals, it is also about giving them the dignity to function in society without stigma. As has been raised by a number of previous speakers, many of our social assistance programs are based on labelling individuals in one category of an underclass or another. It is difficult enough to be disabled, homeless or addicted. Why compound the difficulty by attaching benefits intended to be a form of basic income to one of those labels?

A further difficulty with many social assistance programs is the clawback that kicks in when recipients earn income, which, as we all know, creates a disincentive to work. Many previous speakers have flagged this issue, so I will not belabour it. My only point is that by removing this disincentive, a guaranteed basic income not only helps individuals expand their freedoms, but it also enhances their dignity.

There are many questions about how a guaranteed basic income program would work and how it would benefit individuals and society in general. That is what Motion No. 51 is about. It calls on the government to consider this idea more thoroughly, to conduct pilot projects and, in particular, to work with the provinces.

The focus of these pilot projects will undoubtedly be on equity and efficiency, including cost savings for social assistance and health care programs as a whole, and on the incentive or disincentive effects on recipients. These are critical considerations for the design of a more far-reaching, perhaps nation-wide, guaranteed basic income program, but they should not lose sight of why we are, or, at least, why I am, really interested in coming up with better ways of supporting the neediest in our society: because we want to enhance their freedoms and to allow them to exercise those freedoms with dignity.