Bare life: An event at the LSE

On Wednesday 23rd January 2019 at the London School of Economics, in Professor Richard Sennett’s public lecture series about the future of the welfare state, Professor Robin Mansell chaired presentations by Professor Sennett and Professor Robert Skidelsky on the subject ‘Welfare after Beveridge: Bare life’.

Professor Sennett described automation of two kinds: ‘replicants’ – artificial intelligence represented by Amazon’s Alexa – and ‘robots’. The latter are slowly affecting manufacturing, but the former are turning careers into jobs, destroying the possibility of work forming a life narrative, and generating a gig economy characterised by underemployment. This has increased the incidence of depression, and has given those involved a constant feeling that their lives makes no difference to the world. The result is ‘bare life’, in which life is experienced as barren.

Professor Sennett then outlined two variants of what he called ‘Basic Income’: the unconditional regular payments normally called Basic Income or Citizen’s Basic Income, and one-off stakeholder grants. While the latter could provide the possibility of entrepreneurial activity, their value could easily disappear either quickly or suddenly, the former would provide a level of economic security and therefore a constant opportunity to do meaningful unpaid work and experience agency. In this context, Citizen’s Basic Income is less an answer to inequality and more about creating productive human beings who experience purpose.

Professor Skidelsky envisaged Citizen’s Basic Income providing individuals with more choice over whether to seek work activity or leisure activity, and with more control over conditions of work. He discussed common objections to Citizen’s Basic Income – that the income would not be the result of individual effort, that nothing would be required in return, and cost. He regarded the first of these objections as the most difficult to respond to because ‘unearned income’ forms the basis of objections to the rentier class. He suggested that because cost would be less of a problem in a growing economy, such an economy would be the best context for implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income; and he also suggested that a context of full employment would make the other two objections more difficult to sustain.

A short period of discussion followed the two presentations.

 

First of all, two minor quibbles with Professor Sennett’s presentation: Philippe Van Parijs has been an important author and advocate of Citizen’s Basic Income, but he was not the founder of the modern movement. He was one of many: and a number of earlier ones were in the UK.

Scotland was listed as having started pilot projects in four boroughs. The Scottish boroughs are at the stage of recognising how difficult it is to run genuine pilot projects in a developed country in which the government with control over the current tax and benefits systems has no wish to adjust them in Citizen’s Basic Income pilot communities. We are still a long way from pilot projects starting in Scotland.

 

More importantly: In response to the objections listed by Professor Skidelsky and the responses that he offered:

A Citizen’s Basic Income of a reasonable size could be funded from within the current tax and benefits system without causing any untoward consequences, as research at the Institute for Social and Economic Research has shown. There is no need to wait for a growing economy.

Because a Basic Income of any size would remove a lot of households from means-tested benefits, the reduced marginal deduction rates that those households would experience would provide them with enhanced incentives to seek employment or to start their own businesses. A Citizen’s Basic Income would therefore help to bring about full employment. There would be no need to wait for full employment before implementing a Citizen’s Basic Income.

If a Citizen’s Basic Income were to be largely paid for by turning the Income Tax Personal Allowance and the National Insurance Contribution Primary Earnings Threshold into cash payments, then it would be difficult to sustain the argument that the Citizen’s Basic Income would be unearned income of a somehow illegitimate kind, because the same argument would count the Personal Allowance and the Primary Earnings Threshold as equivalent to rentier income. As Samuel Brittan once suggested, the only thing wrong with unearned incomes is that not everybody has one. [1] If everybody were to have one, and if the income were to be of the same amount for everybody of the same age, then the ‘equivalent to rentier income’ argument could no longer be sustained.

 

This was a significant event. We look forward to further London School of Economics contributions to the Citizen’s Basic Income debate.

To see further details of the event, and a podcast, click here

 

 

[1] Samuel Brittan, ‘Review of Promoting Income Security as a Right: Europe and North America, Guy Standing (ed)’, Citizen’s Income Newsletter, issue 2 for 2005, pp 8-9.

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

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