A Citizen’s Income: a foundation for a sustainable world, by Clive Lord

John Carpenter, 2003, £8.99, pb, vii + 153pp, ISBN 1 897766 87 4. Order this book

The title suggests that this is a book about the Citizen’s Income route to tax and benefits reform; but what the book is actually about is the danger to the planet and ourselves of our current consumption patterns. It is a manifesto about the environment within which a Citizen’s Income plays an important role. Or does it ?

The fundamental difficulty we face is the ‘tragedy of the commons’. On a pasture open to all, each herdsman maximises his gain, and he can add to his utility (providing the pasture is still viable) by introducing an additional animal. Net gain to the herdsman, one animal grazing. The effects of overgrazing are shared by all of the herdsmen, so any disutility to the individual herdsman is a fraction of one animal grazing, thus giving the herdsman a net gain in utility. Every herdsman acts rationally by adding animals, and ultimately the pasture is ruined.
The author lists real-life examples of the tragedy of the commons: a particularly graphic example being Easter Island, where the population cut down the trees to build canoes and to make rollers for their stone statues and thus deprived themselves of the ability to build canoes and go fishing. They descended into cannibalism. But this isn’t the only way to organise a society, and Lord introduces us to the Siane of New Guinea, a people who divide goods into three groups: food is shared equally; there is a free market in luxury goods; and ceremonial goods are politically allocated. A Citizen’s Income is recommended as today’s equivalent of the Siane’s equal sharing of food, and the object of the strategy is the same: to give to everyone a sense of security, thus making it easier to adopt a less consumerist attitude.

As Lord correctly points out, there is already a good deal of redistribution of income. The problem is that the cost is borne by the poorest because they suffer high withdrawal rates as income rises: their effective tax rates are far higher than those experienced by the wealthiest. A Citizen’s Income would right this wrong. He goes on to discuss possible labour-market consequences of a Citizen’s Income and to discuss some of the questions which might be asked about these consequences. But instead of turning to questions of environmental politics, as he then does, he might have given some consideration to questions relating to other possible economic effects of a Citizen’s Income. Yes, a greater sense of security might tend to reduce economic growth; but it might also tend to increase it as a Citizen’s Income gave people a greater incentive to risk new resource-consuming economic activity. Also, because a Citizen’s Income would contribute to a more rational and a more flexible labour market, it might also make resource-consuming industry and commerce more efficient and thus lead to the kind of economic growth which Lord doesn’t want to see.

A Citizen’s Income would also, of course, enable more people to choose to spend their time on community-building and conservation activities, a possibility to which Lord could have given more attention. A Citizen’s Income would have many effects: a more efficient economy, greater freedom of choice for individuals, an increase in people’s ability to earn their way out of poverty. Its environmental credentials are more debatable, and Lord needs to show how the ‘sense of security’ which would result from a Citizen’s Income would in practice control economic growth and human greed.

What we have here is really two books: one on a Citizen’s Income, and another on the tragedy of the commons. To prevent ecological disaster there really is no alternative to international and national legislative action. A sizeable London-wide congestion charge and a substantial tax on air travel, amongst many other necessary measures, are what’s needed to conserve natural resources and protect the environment: not a Citizen’s Income, which might or might not help.

The social justice, individual freedom and economic efficiency arguments are quite sufficient support for a Citizen’s Income. Greens need to decide their verdict on those grounds, like everyone else. And maybe everyone else should take more seriously the tragedy of the commons and work for policies which would directly prevent environmental destruction.

Clive Lord has given us a well-researched book which raises some important issues. It’s at a reasonable price, and well worth buying.

But is it printed on recycled paper ?