Varieties of Basic Income: The Political Economy of Universalism in European Welfare States

Jurgen De Wispelaere is a former occupational therapist turned political theorist and policy scholar. He is an ISRF Political Economy Research Fellow and a Policy Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research (University of Bath). In 2016 he was a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Tampere (Finland), and in this capacity formed part of the Kela-led research team preparing the upcoming national basic income experiment in Finland. Before that he worked at universities in Montreal, Barcelona, Dublin and London and was a visiting researcher at Oxford, ANU, UCLouvain, amongst others.

His major research interest is the political analysis of basic income, which was the topic of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tampere. The current ISRF project is an extension of this research agenda. Jurgen De Wispelaere has published extensively on basic income in leading international journals, including most recently Journal of Social Policy, Journal of Public Policy, Politics, Political Studies, International Social Security Review and Social Service Review, as well as specialist edited volumes. He is a founding co-editor of the journal Basic Income Studies and recently co-edited Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research (Wiley 2013). In addition to basic income, he is interested in disability rights, organ donation, and adoption and has published on all these topics.

Jurgen De Wispelaere was the co-convenor of the 2014 BIEN Congress in Montreal. He is a big fan of death metal and believes a basic income would provide much needed support for the underground music scene.


While in recent years basic income has evolved from a marginal policy idea to a serious item on the policy agenda, there is surprisingly little engagement with questions of how to integrate universal and unconditional basic income schemes into the existing institutional configuration of the developed welfare state. In this project I adopt a political economy approach to analyse what I term the “varieties of basic income”: distinctive basic income models that can be mapped onto the specific features of types of welfare states. The project involves both a systematic review of basic income models and welfare regimes, and several empirical projects focused on the political support of political parties and key stakeholders in Finland (where basic income is scheduled to be trialled in January 2017). The importance of this project is to refocus scholarly attention from philosophical and economic debates about the desirability and feasibility of basic income, to its political feasibility — with specific focus on examining the prospects for building a robust basic income constituency, a stable enacting coalition of political actors, and the goodness-of-fit of specific basic income proposals within the institutional configuration of mature welfare states.

The Research Idea

The main thesis of the proposed project is that basic income is not a single idea, but instead should be regarded as a family of concrete proposals that share important characteristics but also differ in important respects. The basic income idea, thus conceived, allows for considerable variation at the level of policy design and implementation.In contrast to those scholars who argue that basic income can easily reach supporters across the ideological and political divides, I maintain that basic income instead faces important challenges building a robust basic income constituency. Adopting a political economy perspective, I argue it is insufficient to focus on the policy category of “beneficiaries” and that we need to focus on the political category of “constituency”. Relatedly, basic income research needs to engage directly with the extensive political science literature on coalition-building in policy development to better understand the conditions under which a stable basic income coalition may emerge.This project moves the analysis a step further by engaging with questions about the institutional configuration of welfare states in Europe. There exists an extensive debate in comparative political science and social policy concerning the developmental trajectories of European welfare states against the background of permanent austerity. I propose that basic income research engages with this scholarship by examining how basic income would fit within the policy constellations of different types of welfare state. Adopting a “varieties of basic income” approach allows us to analyze how different basic income models map onto different welfare regimes.


In recent years basic income has evolved from a marginal policy idea to something being seriously entertained by a variety of policy entrepreneurs, stakeholders and decision-makers. However, while much scholarly effort has examined the philosophical foundations of the basic income ideal or its economic feasibility (in a narrow sense), there is surprisingly little engagement with questions of how to integrate universal and unconditional basic income schemes into the existing institutional configuration of the developed welfare state.Existing research often considers basic income as a radical alternative to current social assistance or social insurance schemes, entirely eschewing concerns of political feasibility or implementation. By contract, those scholars who have devoted themselves to taking a pragmatic approach concentrate on the micro-simulation of detailed schemes. While these exercises offer important information on the cost and benefits of various alternative proposals, the results are necessarily static and thus fail to account for dynamic effects. Equally important, micro-simulation studies tell us nothing about the numerous implementation challenges associated with introducing basic income in conjunction with preexisting policies and programs. Finally, current studies fail to engage with questions of political feasibility that are central in political economy, including how to secure the broad public support of a robust basic income constituency and build a stable enacting coalitions between key stakeholders.My research project, which builds on previous work I have carried out in this field, aims to put these key questions central.

The Focus

The proposed project contributes to the political feasibility of basic income as it slowly moves up on the policy agenda. I believe a refocusing of scholarly efforts to a political economy analysis of basic income is a necessary condition for understanding this recent development, and to assist a variety of stakeholders and “basic income policy entrepreneurs” in moving their proposals further along the policy agenda. In this respect, I see this project having direct policy application.In addition, however, the project offers a major contribution to the understanding of mature welfare state development. Welfare state research has operated for several decades under conditions of “permanent austerity”, but the recent austerity push following the 2008 financial crisis has put the traditional programs of the welfare state under extra strain. The fact that basic income is being pushed as a solution to current pressures of welfare programs by both anti-austerity social movements (e.g., 15M in Spain) and austerity-promoting governments (e.g., Finland) is a fascinating (even bizarre) fact in need of explanation. My proposed focus on the varieties of basic income — focusing on internal divisions and their mapping onto competing ideological orientations, party strategies and institutional configurations — offers a conceptual tool for analyzing this paradoxical observation.

Theoretical Novelty

Three conceptual and theoretical innovations set apart the proposed project from existing research:1) “Basic income as idea vs. basic income as policy”:Where much analysis remains stuck at the level of thinking of basic income as a novel idea, my approach will be to open this “black box” and focus on the detailed policy features of specific basic income models. This will include obvious features such as the level of the basic income or whether it will replace certain social assistance programs, but

1) “Basic income as idea vs. basic income as policy”: Where much analysis remains stuck at the level of thinking of basic income as a novel idea, my approach will be to open this “black box” and focus on the detailed policy features of specific basic income models. This will include obvious features such as the level of the basic income or whether it will replace certain social assistance programs, but equally dimensions that only emerge in implementation analysis.

2) “Basic income constituencies”: Basic income research focuses on the policy category of “beneficiaries”, where the implicit assumption is that those who benefit from a basic income would also support instituting a basic income or ensure its stability over time. My innovations is to dispute this assumption and instead focus on the political category of a constituency, understood as that part of the general public which a) objectively and b) subjectively benefits from a basic income, and that is c) willing and d) able to spend political resources to supporting basic income.

3) “Varieties of basic income”: This is a novel concept that plays a central role in the proposed project and involves mapping the design features of basic income models onto the specific properties of welfare regime types. The assumption is that the idea of basic income allows for “policy translation” to welfare states that embrace contrasting trajectories of development, with important political effects.


This project adopts a broad political economy approach and engages with debates in political philosophy, sociology, political science, and comparative social policy. A key part of the project is to build the framework for analysis — theory building and hypothesis-building — by systematically analysing the detailed features of basic income models and mapping them onto different types of welfare states, examining the goodness-of-fit of models and institutional configuration.In addition, I will engage in empirical research focused on the political support for basic income in Finland, which plans the first national-level basic income experiment for January 2017. One project with Johanna Perkio (Tampere University) and Rolle Alho (Helsinki University) employs survey methodology and interviews to examine the views of the Finnish trade unions about basic income. Another project, with Johanna Perkio and Lindsay Stirton (Sussex University) is to compare basic income support of Finnish political parties over the last 25 years, using Bayesian item response modelling of political documents (parliamentary questions, campaign statements, etc). Finally, as both Finland and the Netherlands will be conducting a basic income pilot in the beginning of 2017, this offers a unique opportunity for comparative research. I have had some preliminary meetings with leading Dutch scholars Loek Groot (Utrecht University) and Ruud Muffels (Tilburg University) and Finnish colleagues (including Olli Kangas of Kela, who coordinates the Finnish basic income experiment). The empirical research will test the validity of the main theoretical and conceptual innovations underlying this project.

Work Plan

This project involves both a systematic review of basic income models and (comparative) welfare state research and several sub-projects in collaboration with colleagues in Finland and UK. Outputs include 4 articles, detailed below.

1. Article A: “Systematic Review”: review will take up to six months (keeping in mind interruptions for the projects outlined below) ;draft paper written by the summer to present at conferences; revision and write up October-December 2017.

2. Article B: “Basic Income Constituency”: examining the hurdles to move basic income beneficiaries into a political constituency; January-March writing a first draft of this article, aimed at presenting at conferences in April-May and subsequent journal submission.

3. Article C: “Survey/Interview of Finnish Trade-unions” (with Perkio/ Alho): We have already started designing the survey, which we hope to send out in January 2017 (start of the basic income experiment) to 80 trade unions; responses will be analysed in March 2017 and follow- up interviews scheduled for the next two months; final analysis and write-up over summer.

4. Article D: “Modelling of Political Support, Finland 1979-2016” (with Perkio/Stirton): Data gathering has started but coding will continue until February 2017; provisional model is running but needs adapting with new data; analysis of data in February-April; write up over summer and revisions following conference presentations in October. Dr. Louise Haagh (York University) and I have submitted a proposal for a special issue of Journal of European Social Policy on basic income, which might feature article A.


While primary outputs of this project will be academic presentations and several planned articles, I am also working on a book manuscript on the politics of basic income with Prof. Lindsay Stirton, and the findings of this project would be integrated in this book.In the longer run I want to set up a Europe-wide network of basic income and welfare state studies scholars interested in examining the political economy of basic income. The aim of this network would be to engage in collaborative research across several European jurisdictions, with specific focus on a) detailed analysis of the scope for inserting basic income policies, b) analysis of public support for basic income within and across different countries (standardized survey design), c) political analysis of basic income support trajectories over time of both political parties and key stakeholders and d) detailed analysis of policy cases (e.g., pilot studies in Finland and Netherlands). I have already established important contacts with leading scholars in Finland, Netherlands, UK and Spain, and this fellowship would allow me the opportunity to build up a proper network aimed as well as preparing future network funding applications.