Debate report

Debating London, The Basic Income Debate, on Wednesday 6th January 2016

‘Debating London’ stages regular debates in Vauxhall in South London. The aim is to train expert debaters, so those proposing the motion and those opposing it are only told which side they will be on shortly before the event. They will have had time to think about the topic, but none of them will be experts in the field. At the Basic Income Debate, two of the debaters were relative novices, and two were more seasoned debaters.

The Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall was packed for the event. Presentations were made for and against, the audience asked questions which the proposers and opposers were expected to answer, both sides summed up their arguments, and finally a debate judge gave his opinion on how the debaters had performed. Votes were taken both before and after the debate.

For those of us with a longstanding interest in the Citizen’s Income debate, the debate was most educational, as it gave expression to a large number of arguments both for and against Citizen’s Income. So rather than attempt to replicate the four initial presentations, the questions and answers, and the two final presentations, I shall here list briefly – in no particular order – the arguments offered during the evening, both for and against Citizen’s Income.

Arguments for Citizen’s Income

  • People would escape from poverty and unemployment traps
  • Disincentives would be reduced
  • Social mobility would be enhanced
  • Low administrative costs
  • Nobody would be left out
  • Pilots show that economic activity would increase, more children would be in school, crime would reduce, and there would be fewer hospital admissions
  • The right people would stop being employed
  • Dignity and autonomy would be enhanced
  • Stigma would be reduced
  • Income security would enable us to cope with technology-driven change
  • The proceeds of production could be recycled into wages and consumption
  • More people could be creative – and could attend debates
  • Means-tested benefits encourage people to lie
  • We need a secure income in a time of insecurity
  • Voluntary work would increase
  • Financial security would mean that people would work harder
  • People want to work, and Citizen’s Income would encourage paid work
  • Flexibility would be enhanced
  • Training courses would be easier to attend
  • There is a moral case for providing for everyone
  • Citizen’s Income is not patronising, but means-tested benefits are
  • Bureaucracy and intrusion would be reduced
  • Different models makes experiment possible
  • It would be easier to start a business because they could afford to fail
  • A variety of funding mechanisms are available
  • There would be fewer lousy jobs because people could refuse them
  • No longer would people be forced to leave training courses
  • The rich pay tax anyway, so it is better to use that money more efficiently
  • The rich get some of the money back
  • Different redistribution patterns are possible
  • Free healthcare and free education are successful models
  • People could more easily leave oppressive relationships
  • Child poverty could be reduced
  • Developing and developed countries would find Citizen’s Incomes useful
  • We would experience increased freedom
  • Universal provision creates social cohesion
  • Unconditional benefits are easy to automate
  • Citizen’s Income once seemed impossible, but now it doesn’t
  • Citizen’s Income offers both fairness and freedom
  • Choice would be enhanced
  • Tax is a good thing
  • The electoral register could be used to administer Citizen’s Income, which would be good for democracy
  • Citizen’s Income would enhance our sense of citizenship
  • A modern society needs a modern benefits system

Arguments against Citizen’s Income

  • The cost will require higher tax rates
  • Resources are scarce, and the rich don’t need the money
  • We don’t possess the required abundance
  • Other solutions are available, such as withdrawing means-tested benefits more slowly
  • It isn’t fair for taxpayers to have to fund Citizen’s Incomes
  • The poor need money more, so that’s where money should be targeted
  • It is not clear what a Citizen’s Income is intended to cover
  • Anything wrong with the current system can be put right
  • Means-tested benefits encourage people to work, but Citizen’s Income would not
  • A right wing government could use Citizen’s Incomes as an excuse to reduce to reduce public services
  • Taxation would be more difficult to justify than with a means-tested system
  • Automation generates new jobs, so Citizen’s Incomes are not required
  • Tax rates would have to rise, reducing employment incentives
  • Some people would not work, so tax receipts would fall
  • Means-tested provision ensures that people have to accept help to get back into the labour market
  • Disability means that additional income is needed
  • Means-tested benefits take account of circumstances, but Citizen’s Incomes don’t
  • We need lousy jobs to be done
  • Citizen’s Income schemes can create losers and so make poverty worse
  • Stigma is useful
  • Government bureaucracy is not a waste if it sends money where it’s needed
  • The welfare state is for some people when they need it, not for everybody all of the time
  • Governments need to be able to prioritise the needs of some groups rather than others
  • Means-tested benefits can take account of local differences
  • Welfare state legitimacy would be more difficult to sustain with Citizen’s Incomes
  • Means-tested benefits adapt as people’s needs change

The resolution at the beginning of the debate asked whether the audience would like to see a Basic or Citizen’s Income replace all other benefits. This was amended to ask whether the audience wanted to see a Basic Income replace all benefits except for Housing Benefit and disability benefits. The vote at the beginning of the evening on the unamended resolution was: for 21, against 13, abstentions 23. The vote at the end of the evening on the amended resolution was for 26, against 22, abstentions 16. When the possibility to abstain was removed, the vote was for 34, against 30.