Malcolm Torry: Citizen’s Basic Income: A Multidisciplinary Approach, Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2020, 336pp, £hbk 115.00; pbk 30.95; ebk 25.00, ISBN: 9781788117869; 9781800376021; 9781788117876.
An earlier version of this review first appeared in the Journal of Social Security Law, 3, 2022, 219-220.
In this book, Malcolm Torry explores what a range of different academic disciplines have to say about universal basic income (UBI — an income paid periodically to all resident individuals in a given territory with no test of means or willingness to work). After an introductory chapter to elaborate the idea of UBI, each chapter gives an overview of a relevant academic discipline and then discusses how the discipline casts light on the case for a UBI. The disciplines covered include history, ethics, economics, psychology and social psychology (which are given separate chapters), sociology, social policy, social administration, politics, political economy and law.
Each chapter provides a very useful introduction to what a given academic discipline has to say about UBI. For the most part, the focus is on what each discipline can contribute to the case for a UBI. Thus, in the chapter on ethics, Torry draws out the way various ethical perspectives, including consequentialism and John Rawls’s theory of justice as fairness, can offer philosophical support for a UBI. In the chapter on economics, Torry uses income-leisure choice theory to show how a UBI can produce a gain in welfare for the low paid by reducing the effective marginal rate of taxation on labour income compared to a means-tested system of income support and potentially help facilitate a transition to an environmentally sustainable economy.
The chapter on psychology draws in part on a text on UBI by Psychologists for Social Change which suggests a UBI could impact favourably on variables such as agency, security, connection, a sense of meaning, and trust and includes an in-depth discussion of how a UBI might reduce stress. The social psychology discussion reviews literatures on social norms and stigma. It acknowledges the challenge that conventional notions of “deservingness” pose to UBI but also points to a UBI’s benefits in terms of diminishing stigma and to the potential for public attitudes to evolve positively in the wake of a UBI reform. From a sociological perspective, Torry argues that UBI has advantages over means-tested welfare in the face of changes in family structure and in terms of increasing the power of women.
Torry’s chapter on “social policy” focuses mainly on how a UBI might emerge from a real-world policy-making process. It includes an in-depth discussion of the various “feasibility” debates around UBI. Is it, for example, financially, administratively, or politically feasible? Drawing on material in this and other chapters, Torry defends the feasibility —or multiple feasibilities — of UBI while also acknowledging that the feasibility issue is likely a multiple, and therefore challenging, one. In a follow-up chapter, Torry focuses on the “social administration” aspect of social policy as a discipline, elaborating the argument that a UBI would be relatively easy and cheap to administer compared to means-tested benefits and other alternatives. These two chapters also provide valuable outlines of possible UBI schemes for the UK addressing issues of cost and practical implementation.
Torry’s politics chapter explores the way UBI can fit with a range of political ideologies, from liberalism to socialism to conservatism, and with a number of core values, such as the reduction of poverty and inequality and “citizenship”. The chapter on political economy seeks to identify ways that UBI will increase economic growth, assuming this is desirable, for example through a stimulus to enterprise formation and innovation. The chapter on law discusses whether international human rights documents, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights, give a legal basis for UBI. Torry argues that current UK benefits systems breach human rights standards and that a UBI would do much better. This and a number of other chapters, such as the politics chapter, also helpfully remind us that UBI needn’t be considered only as a national policy but that we can also imagine UBI as part of “multi-tiered” conceptions of citizenship, including a global UBI.
The above is, of course, a far from complete summary, but I think it does draw out fairly the extent to which, as said, the emphasis is on what various academic disciplines can contribute to the case for UBI. The book certainly does not ignore some challenges that these disciplines raise for the UBI supporter, but perhaps there is more that could be drawn out here. For example, within my own specialism of political philosophy, I think there is more to be said on how Rawls’s theory of justice offers resources to argue against UBI. Torry notes how some have drawn policy conclusions distinct from UBI from Rawls’s theory, but it is striking that one of the leading academic political philosophers supportive of UBI, Philippe Van Parijs, has argued that Rawls’s theory —specifically, the so-called “difference principle”— is indeterminate on the matter until we have decided how to weight the various primary goods associated with this principle —in particular, income and leisure-time. (Rawls’s own comments are, in my judgement, more ambivalent on the matter than Torry suggests.)
In addition, although the book covers a very broad range of material it arguably has gaps. For example, so far as I can see there is no significant discussion of UBI and racial injustice, although discussions of the ethics or sociology or politics of UBI offer contexts for this. As Juliana Uhuru Bidadanure has pointed out, this has been an omission in the wider UBI academic literature.
Overall, academics, students and activists alike will find this book very helpful in seeing what various disciplines have to contribute to discussion of UBI. My advice is to approach the book in a constructively critical fashion, by asking, in each chapter, what more you think the disciplinary approach in question can contribute to both the case for and the case against UBI.