There is growing interest in the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI), also called Citizen’s Income, to replace means-tested benefits. This was given a lift last week by the think tank RSA. The Lib Dems are also reported to be looking at it as part their review of welfare. The idea already has some totemic value on the left – it is part of the Green Party policy pitch. It is an interesting idea, but my scepticism is growing. But it has along pedigree: I first remember it being advocated by Paddy Ashdown in the 1990s.
Why the interest? Well the benefit system has become fiendishly complex, with entitlement hedged around by all kinds of rules. Applying for benefits is often demeaning, and the bureaucracy involved is arbitrary. Although the government is trying to reduce the complexity of benefits with the introduction of Universal Credit (UC), which is phased out as income rises, this brings its own nightmare. To work, it needs up to date information on what people are earning. The systems difficulties associated with this have led to repeated delays in its introduction. Some of these problems may in the end prove insoluble; the project has borne many of the hallmarks of over-ambitious failed technology projects, though the bad press has eased over the last year.
A UBI would replace these benefits, including the old age pension, child benefit, unemployment pay and the tax free allowance on income, with a single system of payments to everybody. This would doubtless have to be age-related. The RSA version suggests a low rate for children (payable to parents), and a high one for the elderly. Extra allowances would need to be made for those with certain types of disability. This cuts through the current complexity.
Of course the first big design issue is affordability. How high would taxes have be to pay for it? Consider the basic maths. If the allowance was set at the mean level of earned income (spreading the income from those that work across those that don’t) across the economy, then tax on income would have to be 100%. On top of that you would have to pay for the NHS, defence, schools, the police, and so on. If it was set at 50% of average income, tax would have to be 50% just to pay for it, and so on. So any design has to push the boundaries of how low can you get away with. But how low can the entitlement be and still be able to realistically provide a sole income for the unlucky? The RSA version can only get through this conundrum by sidestepping the rather central question of housing costs.
After you have navigated that rather central problem of scale, more problems await:
- Incentives to work. If the income is going to be sufficient to sustain people through unemployment, might it not encourage a frugal lifestyle of people who never work (legally, anyway), reducing the tax base? This would be parasitic, and surely seen as such. Which then leads to the toxic politics of people who suspect that this is the case of their neighbours, minorities, and the like. The experience of places where something like the UBI currently works (Native American reservations with gambling or natural resources income, for example) is not particularly encouraging: too many people can lapse into a hopeless, dependent lifestyle.
- Housing is a harder problem than just affordability, as it varies so much from place to place. But, to be fair, this is a problem with the current system too. A whole new approach is needed to housing policy, and that would need to work alongside this reform. This encompasses such issues as the availability of social housing, regulated the private rental sector, and the access to housing finance which seems to be too easy, so pushing up prices needlessly). This, for my money, is a more urgent problem.
- Who is an isn’t entitled? At what point do people coming to live in the country become entitled? At want point do people choosing to move overseas lose entitlement? This is one area where being in the EU, with its multiplicity of benefits systems and no-discrimination rules, makes things harder.
- Enforcement. There is an invitation to fraud here, as people will be tempted to create claims for fictitious people, or the deceased, etc.,and that points to the use of some kind of central registration. The RSA suggests linking to the electoral register. This sits uneasily with British traditions of keeping the state at arms length.
- Taxes. There is a need to roll in personal tax free Income Tax and National Insurance allowances to make it pay. That means all income is taxable. This could involve quite a lot of extra administration as more people are brought into the scope of taxation.
There are no doubt many more design issues. The problem is not so much that these difficulties are insuperable, but that the idea is revolutionary. And revolutions usually fail, because it is impossible to foresee consequences. All the modelling is based on the idea that behaviours will not change very much – when they are bound to. If possible change should be in smaller, evolutionary steps.
But I have a deeper, philosophical problem. This all reeks of a Big Idea to be dropped from a great height on people by central government. Liberals are rather prone to this. They love the idea of universal righst and entitlements, because they think they are empowering. But the alternative view is that such grand, centrally designed systems are dehumanising and create dependency.
My view is that instead of such systems of legal rights and entitlements, we need to give the state a human face. That means that individuals in difficulty have access to intermediated services and support which tie together, physical health, mental health, social support, housing and so on. These would in packages that are designed to move people onto a sustainable path, and also conditional on to some extent on how the individual engages. Universal income is based on a heartless idea of “Take the money and you’re on your own.” Of course intermediated services might be considered illiberal, because they place considerable discretionary power in the hands of agents of the state. I think that can be managed through stronger local accountability. And I think that current British society has the civic strengths to pull it off. Though even here, I must beware of my own Big Idea to be dumped on an unknowing public.
But Citizen’s Income is supported by a lot people I respect. No doubt the idea is worth exploring further. But I will take a lot of convincing that this is the best way forward for welfare reform.