Malcolm Torry, The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income, a review by Anthony Painter

Malcolm Torry, The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income, Palgrave Macmillan, xxix + 286 pp, 1 137 53077 6, hbk, £82

Two years ago, the notion that there would be an active and practical debate about the desirability and feasibility of the Citizen’s Income would have seemed far-fetched. A case might have been put. Some dreamy activists and philosophers might have enjoyed indulging in a simulated reality. But then we would all have moved onto something else. And yet, in many developed countries as well as some that are developing, that is precisely what has happened – a live, mainstream debate is occurring.

There is a wave theory of interest in Citizen’s Income. Each generational wave is greater. And we are currently riding the latest wave. It sounds like a natural process but it is not. The only reason this wave is rising so high is down to the relentless work, perseverance, research, coalition building of a range of dedicated people. One of those people is Malcom Torry – a prolific researcher, writer, and pro-Citizen’s Income coalition builder.

His latest book, The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income, combines clinical analysis with deep humanity. The work systematically dismantles the case against Citizen’s Income with precision. It leaves the reader with a sense of grounded hope. Feasibility constitutes an essential component of any social policy library – not only for those who are specifically interested in or advocate for a Citizen’s Income.

Opponents of Citizen’s Income deploy a number of strategies in opposing it. Now we are in the space where the proposition can’t be ignored they resort to conceding the desirability case (‘of course unicorns or utopias are desirable’) but then sink their teeth into the case for feasibility (‘but in the real world it’s obviously not possible’). Knowing this, Torry makes the desirability case quickly and decisively but then devotes the lion’s share of the work to confronting feasibility across a number of dimensions: fiscal, household finances, psychological, administrative, behavioural, political, and policy process. What emerges across these dimensions is, in essence, a theory of change for moving from the current state to a Citizen’s Income.

The model of change adopted by Torry is one of elite policy making and political change. There is a good deal of sense in this in that this has been the leverage point through which major changes to the social contract in what is now called ‘welfare’ (though Citizen’s Income is not actually a system of ‘welfare’ alone) have come. Think of the Poor Law Commission, the Beveridge Report, the Turner Commission or indeed the introduction of Universal Credit in this regard. So history is on the side of this analysis.

Personally, I have a sense that Citizen’s Income requires a very different type of engagement alongside elite policy processes. It is such a big change that a strong civic conversation and convening will be needed also. The difference between this view and the one expressed in the book is one of emphasis rather than anything more fundamental. The Feasibility of Citizen’s Income presents more than adequate evidence that elite changes are critical, particularly in a UK system dominated by an overweening executive.

Two of the critical feasibilities are the fiscal and distributional aspects of introducing a Citizen’s Income. Torry’s Citizen’s Income Trust (CIT) have been in the vanguard of this work (and, indeed, the RSA’s model was based on work undertaken by the CIT). As part of making the case, advocates of Citizen’s Incomes have had to produce detailed models that enable impact analysis. And, indeed, the latest CIT models, which are distinct from the CIT model that the RSA used in its model, present a perfectly robust fiscal and distributional case. However, there is a methodological caveat that needs to be attached to all these models – including the RSA’s. In assessing the impact of a Citizen’s Income we imagine no behaviour change between the current system and the proposed new system. Yet we know that behaviour is sensitive to incentives. Without knowing these behavioural impacts, a truly robust model is impossible.

So if there is a criticism of the Torry analysis, it understates some of the highly significant uncertainty around this type of modelling. In fairness, others do too (and I don’t exempt my own analysis from this need for caveat). But this really is a minor quibble.

Throughout The Feasibility of a Citizen’s Income Malcolm Torry’s particular authorial voice, blending compassion with analytical finesse, is audible. I would strongly urge the publishers to place this volume at a more affordable price point or publish a standard price e-book version. Whether the current wave of interest in Citizen’s Income breaks or whether it becomes even larger, this work will remain relevant, essential, and powerful. There is a strong case for Citizen’s Income. Torry gives us the substance with which to make it.

Anthony Painter is Director of the Action and Research Centre and author of Creative citizen, creative state: the principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income.