The Netherlands will kick off the year 2017 by launching an experiment with an unconditional basic income starting in January – the culmination, for now, of a charismatic social scientists’ decades of activism.
It was a day in March that Joop Roebroek, who holds a degree in political and social studies, won’t forget any time soon. Outside, a shy spring sun was shining, inside, the Dutchman experienced one of the brightest moments of his career: “It was a milestone!”
He was sitting at a table with representatives of about two dozen Dutch communities: Heads of departments, municipal council members, scientists and social services staff were hunched over a document containing guidelines provided by Roebroek. Six hours later, they were persuaded: “Yes, let’s try this thing.” – words the 65-year-old had never dreamt of hearing.
“This thing” is the introduction of a basic income: An idea, harbored in many European countries for decades, to abolish welfare benefits and instead pay everyone a certain monthly sum, regardless of their job situation, no strings attached, regardless whether they work or not.
“We can’t afford to wait for politics.”
This has never been done before, neither in the Netherlands nor elsewhere. But the memorable meeting of March 2015 at least led to a point where the four communities of Groningen, Tilburg, Utrecht and Wageningen received the green light from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment to start experimenting with the basisinkomen (as it is called here) on 1 January 2017. “Finally,” Roebroek says enthusiastically. “That makes us Dutchmen the first ones to get top-level politics moving on this issue.”
Actually, he isn’t too surprised that the Netherlands are taking the lead, for the conditions could not be better than in his small, flexible and highly innovative home country. “Large countries like Germany have a much harder time rethinking their systems.”
Roebroek is a resolute and charismatic man. In his country, he is considered one of the masterminds of the basic income. Nobody has been working on this topic longer than him. In the 1980s, when he was a researcher at the University of Tilburg, he wrote his first study on the basic income. For the past two years, he has served as president of MIES, a social and economic innovation lab in Groningen. Using crowdfunding, MIES raised enough money to provide the first two Dutchmen with a basisinkomen of 1,000 Euro per month for a year. Anne van Dalen is one of the recipients: “I have a lot more freedom to live my life the way I want,” says the unemployed secretary from Den Haag. Her dream is to eventually make a living as a freelance artist. “My financial nest egg isn’t big enough to do that.” MIES will make a basic income available to other Dutchmen, as well. “We can’t afford to wait for the politicians to come around.” Social dynamics fueled by financial security
Roebroek considers traditional welfare benefits a “tool to discipline and belittle people.” 100 unsuccessful job applications will burn out even a university graduate – let alone a simple blue-collar worker. “A basic income will liberate people, stir them up from their lethargy,” for example by founding their own business or learning a trade. He rejects his opponents’ main argument that handing out free money will make people even more passive and reluctant to work: “On the contrary – the basic income creates social dynamics. People can unfold their talents, they will live differently, treat each other differently, because they have financial security.”
He also dismisses the second counter-argument that a basic income is prohibitively expensive: “We would be able to get rid of all other forms of welfare benefits – we could close all the welfare offices and save billions.” In the meantime, the dedicated Dutchman has rallied other citizens behind his cause. The “Burgerinitiatief Basisinkomen 2018”, for example, collected the necessary 40.000 signatures to force the topic onto the agenda of the Dutch parliament.
Civil disobedience to combat government regulations
As of now, none of the established parties dares fully endorse the basic income. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s social-liberal government is being cautious. Come 1 January 2017, the four towns of Utrecht, Groningen, Wageningen and Tilburg will only be allowed to experiment with the basic income under certain conditions: Welfare recipients will no longer be obligated to apply for social benefits and will be allowed to earn additional income. “Strictly speaking, we are experimenting with traditional welfare,” says Roebroek. On the one hand, he is glad that things finally got moving at the federal level, on the other hand, he doesn’t hold back criticism: “It’s way too limited!” For these experiments will not cover the entire population. Instead, the basic income will only be paid to hand-picked individuals. The participating towns have also voiced their objections. They want to go further and introduce the basic income in entire quarters with high levels of unemployment. “Only then will we be able to observe the social dynamics of it,” Roebroek explains. Yet he remains optimistic. The Dutch have a reputation of being an unruly people who do not like being told what to do: “Some communities have already announced that they intend to practice some civil disobedience.”