Basic Income Guarantee and Politics: International experiences and perspectives on the viability Income Guarantee, edited by Richard K. Caputo

Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 0 230 11691 7, hbk, ix + 322 pp, £62.50

This volume gathers together a huge of diversity of analysis of national and international political debates over the introduction of a Basic Income.

A big challenge for a survey of the Citizens’ Income debate is to balance breadth with depth. How does one best combine the detail and insight that different authors offer with the need to offer comparative analysis and discussion of themes across countries? Richard Caputo provides a gentle editorial steer through this global journey, helping the reader to pick up specific nuances of debates in individual countries and regions whilst also providing an overview and some connections to international themes. Key topics covered in all of these essays are the historical drivers and opportunities that push forward discussion of Citizen’s Income, the political enablers and barriers to progress in these debates, and the prospect for progress in the future.

The first four chapters offer a helpful overview and comparative approach. Following Richard Caputo’s introduction and overview, De Wispelaere and Noguera outline a potential framework for considering political feasibility of the Basic Income project. De Wispelaere and Nogerua consider feasibility in strategic, institutional and psychological dimensions by mapping two different types of agency against two types of constraints. It feels a bit of a missed opportunity that this framework is offered at the start of the book but not addressed directly by other contributors. However, even without explicitly addressing this framework the reader will find the key barriers and key enablers identified by De Wispelare and Noguera cropping up in the individual chapters. Most notably, the challenges of institutional inflexibility, and the need to convert key political actors and to build coalitions across parties and interests in order to create strategic feasibility for a Citizens Income.

The region and country specific analyses begin on a confident note. In Chapter 3 Suplicy makes a powerful economic and political case for a Basic Income for underdeveloped economies aiming to jumpstart their global competitiveness. In the subsequent chapter, Guy Standing reflects on the first twenty-five years of BIEN and considers that richer nations may turn again to the issue of universal benefits in response to continued economic strife, the depletion of social protection, and the rise of social unrest.

The rest of the book is made up of 11 chapters that draw on social policy and political debates to examine the prospects for Citizen’s Income in a number of different contexts. This reviewer found the most satisfying chapters those that took a thematic approach, which allowed a lay reader to make their own comparisons between the experiences of different countries. Sacha Liebermann’s chapter on the German experience does this masterfully. It is introduced with a quick summary of the current debate and then thematic headings covering the major barriers addressed by discussions over Citizen’s Income in the last thirty or so years. In Germany’s case, this includes: the challenge of unconditionality (or ‘to live at the cost of others without any contribution’) and debates over the link with citizenship and over how to resolve the position of families and childcare within the overall welfare system.

There is a lot of richness in this volume. The authors have reflected widely and fully on social and political discourses, taking in formal actors and policy makers as well as think tanks and more grass roots movements. One of the difficulties and the rewards of a volume like this is the sheer diversity of experiences. Markku Ikkala looks back over twenty years of debates in Finland, identifying and analysing strands of support from the Green Party and some sections of the Press. Malcolm Torry’s analysis of the backdrop to current debates about universality in the United Kingdom examines themes from the process that led to the Family Allowance Act of 1945 and from the Child Benefit debates of the late 1960s. Alongside these we have in depth analyses that focus on the immediate context of contemporary welfare debates. For instance, the chapter on Spain focuses on the deficit reduction package from 2010 onwards and Hamid Tabatabai’s account asks what we can learn from Iran’s 2010 cash subsidy programme.

One important theme across the regions analysed is the important role of economic instability as a precursor to the revival or creation of new debates on universal benefits as the fragile consensus on welfare systems and social entitlements comes under ever more pressure. In the analysis of the Spanish experience, by Daniel Raventos, Julie Wark and David Casassas, the authors distil the frustration experienced by supporter of a Citizen’s Income in the wake of the economic crisis. For families and workers, a Basic Income could provide much needed security, a serious anti-poverty policy, and a sustainable way of maintaining family income following the debt-based consumption of the early years of the twenty-first century. And yet precisely when the supporters feel the case is most pressing politicians are under pressure to reduce expenditure and target welfare spending on narrow sections of the population.

While it seems churlish to criticise a volume of essays for BIEN members and supporters for not including contributions of opponents of the Citizen’s Income, one limitation of the chapters is a lack of context for some of the more aspirational comments on the future of pressure from think tanks, student groups and activists. While many authors are able to cite specific publications, events and movements as evidence, several chapters include a general positive endorsement or aspiration which feels less contextualised. This includes the aside at the end of the essay on Spain’s experience. The authors argue that ‘it can only be expected’ that the interest in a Citizen’s Income will keep growing from activists as the economic crisis persists and unemployment grows, but don’t offer more solid grounds for hope than that statement.

Looking across the chapters, one key question this reviewer was left with was how supporters of a Citizen’s Income should view these national and international debates as an indicator of progress and possible next steps. De Wispelaere and Noguera discuss how we might frame public perception of a Citizen’s Income in the context of arguments about reciprocity and deservingness of benefit recipients. This is salutary for those who already support Basic Income. A number of different chapters point to elements of universality as indicators of the progress of the argument for a Citizen’s Income or as building blocks on which to develop a stronger case for universality. Changes in pensions in Australia and to tax credits in the UK and Ireland can be seen either as useful stepping stones on a gradualist and pragmatic journey towards a Citizen’s Income, as diversions from making the full case for universality, or as further confusing already complex systems. Alternatively, should a Citizen’s Income be considered as a separate discourse of its own? More fundamentally, this reviewer was left asking, what can we learn from these experiences about how to frame a theory of change for the future? And what would ambitious but realistic intermediate goals look like for the next ten years?

It is a strength of this book that it provides the depth and breadth of reach not only to prompt this kind of question but also to provide significant evidence for the analysis of these issues. The volume offers a timely stocktake, and an opportunity to reflect on debates in the past, present and future.