Policy and Politics, Volume 39, Number 1, January 2011

Special issue: Basic Income, Policy Press, 2011, 144 pp, pbk, ISSN 0305 5736, online ISSN 1470 8442

This substantial collection of articles rehearses a plethora of arguments for a Citizen’s income (here termed a Basic Income), arguments both pragmatic and visionary; and an important byproduct for the reader is a distinct sense that the pragmatic and the visionary are related in a way more complex than we might at first have thought.

Guy Standing calls a Citizen’s Income an ‘economic stabilisation grant’ because it would boost aggregate demand, more efficiently allocate resources, and tackle uncertainty and rising inequality. As he suggests, times of crisis can lead to major change, and a failing paradigm can find itself displaced – but only if a new paradigm is ready to take its place (p.21):

One modest recommendation is that the emerging generation of economists and social policy students should urge their peers, and particularly the new political leaders, to match their rhetoric about being ‘radical’ by assessing genuinely radical ideas. Economics is a constantly unfolding body of thought, and those charged with implementing economic and social policy should face demands to think afresh and evaluate alternatives with open minds. (p.22)

Almaz Zelleke suggests that a feminist theory of justice requires a Citizen’s Income, and that such a universal unconditional income would promote a more gender-inclusive citizenship. ‘Most importantly, basic income indirectly compensates care and society’s other unpaid work without reinforcing the existing gendered distribution of labour or the primacy of the public sphere by equating care with work’ (p.38). Louise Haagh’s following article notes the correlation between a country’s level of equality and its citizens’ control over their time, and seeks a balance between employment and non-employment which she believes would be best served by a Citizen’s Income in a social insurance context.

Stuart White discusses two different ‘citizen’s endowments’: a Citizen’s Income, and universal capital grant. ‘Freedom’ and ‘entitlement’ arguments fail to separate the two options, and the way in which different ‘freedom’ arguments lead in different directions suggests that a combination of a Citizen’s Income and a universal capital grant might be the best option. Leading to the same conclusion, Tony Fitzpatrick discusses the concept of paternalism, distinguishes between a variety of types, recommends a ‘social paternalism’ that prioritises autonomy but doesn’t exclude other values, and suggests that a Citizen’s Income and a universal grant together will best promote such a social paternalism.

Bill Jordan recognises that the UK Government’s current benefit reforms as a useful step along the way to a Citizen’s Income, and raises the question: Will a small Citizen’s Income, established to make labour markets more flexible, then be increased in order to create a new basis for citizenship, or will it remain small and fulfil only its initial purpose? ‘The first steps towards basic income may become politically feasible for a variety of reasons, at a number of different developmental stages, all of which will also be perilous for the principle in various ways’ (p.112) – but those steps should not for that reason be rejected: ‘Social policy can seldom deal in pure principles or utopian solutions, and basic income is no exception. It cannot resolve all the challenges of globalisation … in a single reform, but these measures may be a step in the right direction’ (p.112).

Finally, Jürgen De Wispelaere and Lindsay Stirton study ‘the administrative efficiency of basic income’. Identifying those people entitled to a Citizen’s Income would be a necessary administrative task, and a variety of payment methods might be needed in order to reach the maximum number of payees, so administration of a Citizen’s Income would not be as simple as some might think. The authors discuss a dilemma: ‘Proponents can claim important administrative savings for basic income, provided they restrict those arguments to the most radical paradigmatic form, while simultaneously having to face up to the reality that this radical version of basic income may face insurmountable political obstacles’ (p.121: their italics). De Wispelaere and Stirton also quite properly suggest that a Citizen’s Income isn’t the only way to make administrative savings: other forms of administrative simplification are possible, such as the sharing of information between tax and benefits authorities and aligning tax and benefits rules with each other.

To round off the substantive articles section of this focused and comprehensive edition ofPolicy and Politics with De Wispelaere’s and Stirton’s article, which concludes that ‘administrative efficiency … is … political’ (p.128), seems really quite appropriate.