Over the weekend, Natalie Bennett did a media drive to promote the Green Party’s election policy around a “citizen’s income”. The idea is extremely simple to explain: every adult in the UK gets £72.40 a week from the government. This takes the place of all current welfare systems. This stipend from the Treasury would be withdrawn once people reached a certain level of income. Apart from being simple to explain, the citizen’s income is also a very bad idea.
First off, I need to address perhaps the single largest intellectual error made by the modern day Left. There is a pretence that we are somehow living in a post-industrial age; that no one actually needs to do anything material in order to maintain our current standard of living. This unravels as a concept the moment you stop and think about it at all: someone obviously needs to plough the fields so that we have basic food supplies, as an obvious for instance. So we can talk about who does what and why, how much they should be paid for it and what rights they should have, but in the end, like I say, someone’s got to plough the fields.
One day, perhaps, we will live in a Star Trek style society in which food can be synthesised out of thin air. At that point, I’d be very happy to discuss a citizen’s income.
Second problem with it is that it would be murderously expensive. £240 billion a year is the estimate; the entire working age benefits package as it stands is about £100 billion, for comparison. Third, £72.40 a week isn’t enough to live off of in many parts of the country. This is one of the reasons we have means testing. What if someone has nine children to feed? The answer from the Greens would be that we keep means testing for such instances. But that then results in the need to continue the current welfare system on top of the citizen’s income, when the whole point was to make things simple. It would also make the whole thing even more extortionate.
There are many more things wrong with a citizen’s income (I think it would set up a rather frightening relationship between people and the state, one I’ve seen the horrific affects of in parts of Central Asia first hand) – this doesn’t mean that Labour can laugh it off. I think it will actually be a real problem for them. This is because the citizen’s income is easy to understand, easy to explain on the doorstep and is verifiably an old school left-wing solution to the poverty problem. During an election in which the Greens get to go around touting this little number, while the Labour door steppers have to say something along the lines of, “Yes, we will be matching Tory cuts. But they’ll be a different sort of cut, nicer cuts”, I know which one I’d rather have in hand.
Of course, it is all unfair. The Greens will never be in government, so having a policy that’s full of holes is no problem for them. Meanwhile, Labour have to act as if their ideas will be tested at some point soon. Politics can be a nasty affair.
Andrew Ducker says
I’m not actually understanding your argument here.
Why would a Citizen’s Income cause people to stop working? The whole point is to remove the current disincentives to work, by removing the welfare cliff we currently have, which can mean that earning more actually leaves you with less at the bottom end.
A simple solution is to remove the income tax allowance. Hand everyone enough to not starve, and then set taxes on all income at 40%. This reduces the overall cost significantly, while meaning that people who are currently unemployed will always have an incentive to work (and gets rid of a huge amount of bureaucracy).
The idea that in this situation people will simply stop working seems ludicrous to me. (And contradicted by the Candadian Mincome experiments.)
Thank you for beating me to the punch. This article is riddled with poor arguments that are flippantly tossed aside without much thought.
Andrew Hickey says
Absolutely agreed. What it would probably mean is that a lot of people in “bullshit jobs” — the ones that don’t produce anything at all useful — would quit them. For example, in my last job (I won’t talk about my current employers publicly, for obvious reasons), I spent three years working on a piece of software that had only three customers but which the company in question thought strategically important in persuading customers to switch to their servers from a competitor’s functionally identical ones. I then spent two years working on an operating system component that was meant to speed programs up — but it turned out that the best it could do was slow them down, so the OS was shipped with that component installed but turned off and undocumented.
That job, and millions like it, was as far from the “tilling the field” type jobs as it’s possible to get. It produced literally nothing of any value or use to anyone. Yet in the little spare time I had in that same five years, I took part in political campaigning, wrote six books, and co-authored a number of research papers. Those things were of FAR greater societal value than anything I was doing during my day job, and the necessity of having a day job to afford to eat and pay the bills meant that I was unable to do far more of those things.
(The one job I’ve ever had that was actually of any use to anyone — working as a psychiatric nursing assistant — paid less than half what the later job paid).
There is a complete disconnect between productive work and paid work. Most people *want* to do the former, but have to do the latter. A basic income would help rebalance that.
Lucy Weir says
You’re very ready to dismiss this, but every system is open to critique, and if this one was properly implemented, it could indeed save money (having said this, I’ve looked at this from a philosophical, not an economic or a political perspective). You haven’t factored in the freeing up of bureaucracy that would take place with this implementation. You seem to think we all need to slave away, ploughing fields. Actually, there is less and less work in production. We need, somehow, to move away from consumerism as the be all and end all, too, because we produce too much unnecessary stuff simply to fill vacuous lives. This needs to be addressed (as does the elephant in the room, human population). Not by eugenics. Not by ecofacism. But by dialogue, education, information sharing, and far more original and imaginative approaches to how we live. The more freedom people have (particularly when they have also had access to education and information) the more chance there is that they will begin to take responsibility for themselves. If people develop self responsibility, they become more independent, more self reliant, they manage to escape the trap of learned helplessness that societies in the global North currently harbour. I think we need to really work to create opportunities and that this is a good start. But I’m glad you raise the question, because the detail needs to be thrashed out.
There have been experiments in this before eg in Canada and grants of money to members of poor communities. All have show that the fear that people will give up work is groundless – the opposite happens as people are free to start up their own businesses without fear. Most of these schemes are promptly shit down by neoliberals heavily invested in the status quo.
Bradley Phipps says
For starters, you haven’t addressed the fact that this is an idea which found widespread support on the USA during the 1970s, including from Richard Nixon and a number of conservatives. It has also had historic backing from a wide variety of economists historically. As I said to you in a tweet, it was also tested in a Canadian town and worked very well. It’s rather churlish to dismiss it as pie in the sky with absolutely nothing other than a series of assertions.
You’ve also not seemed to notice the logical fallacy of suggesting that no-one would bother working if we had a universal income, whilst then going on to point out that “isn’t enough to live off of in many parts of the country.” So people would presumably continue to work to make up the short-fall.
Indeed, the time it was put into practice in Daupin, Mantinoba, people continued to work – and some found themselves given the opportunity to develop their skills or pursue education, thus increasing their productive capacity.
This blog post is nothing more than a list of assumptions which do not stand up to even the most rudimentary examination. I note that you haven’t bothered to research the issue at all, or engage with any of the critics of your vacuous article. Nick knows best, obviously.