The idea can be traced as far back as Thomas Paine at the end of the eighteenth century. The land belongs to all of us, but it has been expropriated by a few. The few therefore owe to every citizen some compensation. Hence the argument for a Citizen’s Income.
In Britain during the 1930s, James Meade advocated a ‘Social Dividend’, payable to all citizens; i and in 1943 Juliet Rhys Williams advocated a non-withdrawable income for each individual as an alternative to the Beveridge Report’s prescription of contributory and means-tested benefits. Rhys Williams’ idea was not quite that of a Citizen’s Income because entitlement would have depended on a work test, but it came very close. Meade later developed Rhys Williams’ ideas, abandoning her work test, and financing the scheme through Income Tax.
In Holland the Dutch were discussing ‘Basisinkommen’ by the late 1970s; in Britain, the first official use of the term ‘Basic Income’ was in 1982, when Sir Brandon Rhys Williams MP (son of Juliet Rhys Williams) submitted a Citizen’s Income scheme in evidence to the House of Commons Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee subcommittee on income distribution; and in 1972, Edward Heath’s government put forward detailed proposals for a tax credit scheme, which would have replaced most income tax allowances and some social security benefits with tax credits payable in cash where they exceeded tax liability. These tax credits closely resembled a Citizen’s Income, but did not cover the whole population. In 1974, the Heath government fell, and in 1979 Child Benefit (which closely resembles a Citizen’s Income for children) was introduced. In March 1990 the Liberal Democrats gave unanimous approval to a non-withdrawable ‘Citizen’s Income’ – so now both ‘Citizen’s Income’ and ‘Basic Income’ refer to an unconditional and non-withdrawable income paid to every individual.
During this history, pamphlets and books have been written, journals have been published, the idea has been debated at conferences, and the idea has come and gone on political agendas (it was discussed at a Labour Party conference during the 1920s), sometimes climbing the public agenda and then falling back again, but always returning in a more vigorous fashion and with a greater variety of people in favour.
The reason for this persistence and occasional revitalised emergence is that a Citizen’s Income becomes more and more relevant as the years go by. One day a country will implement the idea, and then the rest of us will follow.
i James Meade, Agathotopia: The economics of partnership, David Hume Paper no.16, Aberdeen University Press, Aberdeen, 1989, pp 34–8
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101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income offers a short, accessible introduction to the debate on a Citizen’s Income, showing how a universal, unconditional income for every citizen would solve problems facing the UK’s benefits system, tackle poverty, and improve social cohesion and economic efficiency. For anyone new to the subject, or who wants to introduce friends, colleagues or relatives to the idea, 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income is the book to open up debate around the topic. Drawing on arguments detailed in Money for everyone (Policy Press, 2013), it offers a convincing case for a Citizen’s Income and a much needed resource for all interested in the future of welfare in the UK.