Mark Walker, Free Money for All

Mark Walker, Free Money for All: A Basic Income Guarantee solution for the twenty-first century, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, xi + 249 pp, 1 137 47132 1, hbk, £75

This book is a bit like a holdall, in the sense that is an exploration of a wide variety of aspects and consequences of paying to every US citizen a Citizen’s Basic Income of $10,000 per annum in monthly instalments.

Mark Walker relates Citizen’s Basic Income to capitalism, socialism, and the welfare state; finds that it promotes individual freedom in relation to all three; and suggests that it should be understood in terms of ‘good consequences’ rather than as a right. He understands Citizen’s Basic Income as a dividend on such public assets as infrastructure and federally owned land; he argues that it would increase happiness; he finds that it would increase substantive freedom – that is, the ability to choose one’s own course in life; and he sees Citizen’s Basic Income as a response to technological unemployment, which he predicts will be a significant problem – ‘if we are to believe that new job opportunities will open up for humans after the robotic revolution, then surely capitalism should have found jobs for horses after the internal combustion engine revolution’ (p. 105). At the end of the book he argues that a Citizen’s Basic Income would reduce the danger of technology-induced destitution and would therefore reduce the likelihood that technology would be used for terrorism and war. It is no surprise to discover that Walker’s primary research interest is emerging technologies.

Although this book sets out from a very particular proposal, it takes a broad-brush approach to its subject: that is, it evaluates Citizen’s Basic Income in relation to large ideological themes (‘happiness’, ‘freedom’, etc.) rather than in relation to detailed social policy considerations. This has consequences for the argument. For instance, the argument that Citizen’s Basic Income would increase substantive freedom leads to the conclusion that individuals would be able to decrease their hours of employment. What is not argued is that a Citizen’s Basic Income of $10,000 per annum would reduce reliance on means-tested benefits (including the Earned Income Tax Credit), would reduce marginal deduction rates, and would therefore result in greater incentives to increase employment income for anyone currently on means-tested benefits. The ‘freedom’ and ‘incentives’ pressures would pull in different directions in relation to the number of hours for which someone chose to be gainfully employed, and the employment hours consequences of a Citizen’s Basic Income would not in fact be as predictable as Walker suggests.

Chapter 2 somewhat interrupts the main argument by asking who should receive the Citizen’s Basic Income (only American citizens) and how it should be funded (a new Value Added Tax, cutting military spending, and implementing universal tax-funded healthcare, which would be a lot cheaper than the current US system). This material might have been better located as an appendix.

Walker discusses some large themes (human happiness, justice, and world peace among them) in an engaging way: and it is this characteristic of his book that makes it a distinctive contribution to the current debate. Perhaps it’s the size of the country. US scholars such as Karl Widerquist and Alan Walker deal in overarching themes and arguments based on such universals as happiness and justice, whereas scholars from the smaller UK are more concerned with the detail of social administration. We need them both.