Malcolm Torry, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income, Policy Press, 2015, 1 4473 2612 0, pbk, xiv + 120 pp, £9.99
The idea that all social security benefits should be replaced by one universal citizen’s income has a very long history indeed, going back at least to Thomas Paine’s Agrarian Justice (1797). Partial precedents have been implemented (for example, the 1908 old age pensions scheme), there have been some near-misses (such as President Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan) and many imaginative proposals (from bodies like the State Bonus League and individuals like Lady Juliet Rhys Williams). In this succinct and elegantly-written book, Malcolm Torry offers an imaginative and very effective summary of the reasons why the UK should now adopt a citizen’s income, building his case round one hundred and one justifying reasons, allocating one page per reason. He demonstrates convincingly that there has always been a strong case for this reform, but that the particular conditions of the twenty-first century render that case even more convincing.
Readers of this newsletter will need little persuading to devour the contents of this book, so it is perhaps pointless to list all the arguments outlined therein, but suffice it to say that Malcolm Torry covers an enormously wide range: a citizen’s income would overcome the poverty trap by incentivising low-paid or part-time employment; it would assist female employment; it would boost demand in the economy; it would, on an individual level, encourage personal autonomy, diverse life plans and creativity; it would encourage social mobility and greater social inclusion; and so on – there are fully one hundred and one such reasons discussed here.
This is a most impresssive book. Its deceptive simplicity and admirable clarity conceal the fact that Torry has a sound knowledge of both the intricacies of the UK benefits system (sharpened by a spell administering means-tested benefits) and the human condition (thirty-four years as a Church of England vicar is bound to teach one about life). The book thus displays a mastery of detail on the UK’s tax and benefit systems, as well as of current labour market trends; yet this detail is communicated to the reader painlessly and effortlessly. Above all else, what comes across here is Torry’s vision that this reform will not only be economically beneficial, it will also increase the sum total of human happiness.
No book review should be so admiring that it ends up as anodyne and uncritical. Therefore, three difficulties need to be confronted because they have always been discussed regarding this general idea. The first is the residence qualification: exactly how long would citizens newly-arrived in the UK be required to reside before they qualified? Leaving aside the inevitable negative arguments re benefit tourists and welfare magnets, it is clear that some form of means-tested social assistance not unlike income support would be needed in such cases. Similarly, there is the question of how large such a safety-net would need to be if it were to deal effectively with those unfortunates who ‘fell between the cracks’ socially (for example, the homeless living on the streets, people living in hostels and prisoners – Torry bravely argues that both people of no fixed abode and prisoners should indeed receive the citizens’ income). Another question is how incomes would be assessed retrospectively (most notably, regarding the self-employed) for those subject to an annual income test. A third and quite problematic issue is the honesty test (long discussed in debates on the citizens’ income: if I cut your hedge and you pay me £50 cash for doing so, will either of us formally declare this payment?). In other words, would a citizen’s income legitimate the cash-in-hand black economy – or boost it, to the detriment of tax revenue?
These difficulties are by no means insurmountable, however, and Torry discusses them robustly. They are more than counterbalanced by the many virtues of the citizen’s income idea – an idea whose time has come. Twenty-first century labour markets are characterised by greater job insecurity, more episodic employment and a steady growth of part-time jobs. These trends have rendered paid employment more hazardous for many in society. Insecure labour markets are nothing new, of course: they were the norm before the Second World War ushered in a twenty-five year period of ‘job for life’ fordist capitalism. Just as a few brave and imaginative souls advocated versions of a citizen’s income before the War, so now the pressing need for it has reappeared. Malcolm Torry has done us a great service by outlining the case for a citizen’s income in this persuasive, well argued and readable book.
John Macnicol is Visiting Professor in Social Policy at the London School of Economics.