How much does it matter whether the general public thinks Citizen’s Income to be a good idea? There are two views on this.
One is that if most members of the general public don’t understand an idea, or don’t think it’s a good idea, then Members of Parliament won’t give time to discussing the idea, and certainly won’t legislate for it. A caveat needs to be added. If ministers and MPs can see that public opinion is moving in a particular direction, and that it might have moved even further in that direction by the next General Election, then legislation can be somewhat ahead of public opinion and can cement the existing trend. This appears to have happened over equalities legislation, legislation banning smoking in public places, and legislation for same sex marriage. But it is still true that if the general public don’t understand an idea, or don’t think that it’s a good idea, and aren’t likely in the near future to think it’s a good idea, then legislation relating to the idea is unlikely to occur.
The contrary argument is that in some policy fields public understanding is irrelevant, and that this is true of social security benefits. If the general public has little understanding of a policy field, and MPs and ministers don’t understand it either, then policy will be made by think tanks and consultants, and voted through by ministers and MPs without debate. This is how we got Universal Credit on the basis of a report, Dynamic Benefits, prepared by consultants for the think tank set up by Iain Duncan Smith, the Centre for Social Justice.
There is clearly truth in both arguments: so to which one should we give credence in relation to Citizen’s Income? Probably the former. The idea of giving everyone some money triggers some deeply held and perfectly understandable assumptions, however much evidence there is against them.
For most of the thirty years that the Citizen’s Income Trust has been promoting debate on Citizen’s Income this has mattered little, because while it has been on the fringes of mainstream political and policy debate, how the idea is framed has been largely irrelevant. But the idea is now firmly in the mainstream, so whether the general public understands it, and whether the median voter thinks it to be a good idea, begins to matter, and to matter rather a lot.
The consequence is that the current debate about terminology among those already involved in the debate might be entirely irrelevant. ‘Basic Income’, ‘Citizen’s Income’, ‘Citizen’s Basic Income’, ‘Universal Basic Income’, all suggest giving everyone some money without offering a reason for doing so. So the question is this: How should the concept now be framed so that it is understood by the general public, and understood to be a good idea?
I suspect that it will take substantial research and discussion before we get very far with this, but here’s a suggestion to get the ball rolling: The Income Tax Personal Allowance is deeply unfair. Anyone earning below the threshold benefits less from it than those earning above it; and because the different thresholds generally move in tandem, an increase in the Personal Allowance benefits the wealthy more than it benefits the poor. This is rarely understood, so when a Chancellor of the Exchequer suggests that he is raising the Personal Allowance in order to take low earners out of paying tax, he is telling only a small part of the truth. And he is also not saying that disengaging people from paying tax has the proven effect of reducing the likelihood that they will vote for governments offering redistributive policies. So the Personal Allowance in its current form is deeply unfair. To turn it into a cash payment that is paid to everyone would bring lots more people into paying tax, it would treat low earners in the same way as high earners, and it would benefit everyone to the same extent. We could call a Citizen’s Income a ‘Fair Personal Allowance’: or, if that’s too long, a ‘Fair Allowance’. Or perhaps ‘Universal Allowance’, which, unlike Universal Credit, really would be universal.
Nobody is suggesting that we should abandon current terminology – whether BI, CI, CBI, or UBI: but it is clearly time to start work on framing Citizen’s Income so that it can be heard as desirable by the median voter. All ideas will of course be very welcome.