Basic Income Worldwide: Horizons of Reform, by Matthew C. Murray and Carole Pateman

Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, xv + 271 pp, hbk, 0 230 28542 2, £57.50

This book is a most useful survey of international experience of Basic or Citizen’s Income, of benefits sufficiently similar to enable them to be regarded as on the way to a Citizen’s Income, and of significant legislative attempts at Citizen’s Incomes. The book complements Basic Income Guarantee and Politics, edited by Richard Caputo and recently published by the same publisher, with which it overlaps to some extent, but not too much. Both books are essential reading for anyone interested in how experience of Citizen’s Income, and debate about it, are developing worldwide.

Some of the material in the first part of the book will be familiar to readers of this Newsletter, but some will not be. The Alaska Permanent Fund Dividend will be well known, but less well known will be some highly positive results from United States and Canadian Negative Income Tax experiments. This Newsletter has already reported stunning results from the Namibian Citizen’s Income pilot project, but less well known are the complexities of Brazil’s and Canada’s political economies and their effects on benefit reform.

The second part of the book describes Basic Income proposals for East Timor, Catalonia, South Africa, Ireland, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia. The overall impression is of a widespread global debate, different in different countries, but with lots of connections between the different national debates.

Murray’s concluding chapter is understandably effusive about the results of the Namibian pilot project, and about the brake on inequality provided by the Alaskan Permanent Fund Dividend. Conditional schemes, on the other hand, are found to lead to new inequalities (p.253), and tax credit and negative income tax schemes to have similar problems (p.255). Murray recognises the different effects of different political contexts, and this reviewer was particularly struck by ways in which more federal political arrangements, such as those in the USA and Brazil, can make the debate more possible locally but quite complex nationally.

One issue over which the editors seem to be somewhat confused is that of terminology. In this book, ‘Basic Income’ usually means an unconditional and nonwithdrawable income for every citizen, but sometimes it means a class of benefit types of which an unconditional benefit is one member (e.g., p.251), which leaves the unconditional and universal benefit without a name. A similar problem arises in the introductory chapter, which lists some important questions: What form should the payment take? How much should it be? Should it be unconditional? Should it be universal? Can it be afforded? How should it be funded? Some of these questions are ‘controversial questions’ surrounding ‘Basic Income’ (p.2) if ‘Basic Income’ is understood as an unconditional, nonwithdrawable and universal income: but some are not. The question ‘Should the payment be universal?’ is a question about whether we should have a Basic Income. It is not a question about a Basic Income. Similarly, ‘Should the income be paid unconditionally?’ is a question about whether or not we should have a Basic Income. By the end of the introduction we are entirely unsure about what the term ‘Basic Income’ means.

I know that this has been said in these pages before, but it clearly needs saying again: clarity of definition is essential to rational debate.

Our position is this: A ‘Citizen’s Income’ or a ‘Basic Income’ is an unconditional, nonwithdrawable income for every individual as a right of citizenship. The terms should not be used for anything else. Other terms, such as ‘social dividend’ and ‘universal grant’ are equivalent, but only if they mean the same thing. (We do not use ‘Basic Income Guarantee’ because a guaranteed income can mean an income achieved by means-tested benefits.) Widespread agreement on the meaning of terminology would considerably help the clarity of debate, both individual national debates and the global debate, and it would have helped the editors and authors of the book under review to express themselves more clearly.

But having said all that: Murray and Pateman have provided us with a most useful collection of essays on some highly significant Citizen’s Income experiences and debates, and anyone interested in that debate should read this book.