An increasingly lively debate: Responses to an article in The Guardian

An article written by Ellie Mae O’Hagan and published by The Guardian on the 23rd June offers a good opportunity to respond to a number of trends in the increasingly lively debate about Universal Basic Income / Citizen’s Basic Income.

First of all, the article correctly recognises the increasingly mainstream nature of the debate, and increasing interest in a number of political parties. It correctly identifies some useful initial results from the current Finnish experiment, but it would have been more accurate to call the experiment ‘something like a Basic Income pilot’. It calls a new Ontario experiment a ‘similar scheme’. It is not. The Ontario experiment is of an income-tested benefit.

But these are minor errors. The article becomes seriously misleading when it claims that there are similarities between a Citizen’s Basic Income and Universal Credit. The only connection is the use of the word ‘universal’: accurate in the context of a Universal Basic Income, but seriously inaccurate in relation to Universal Credit.

O’Hagan finds it problematic that Sam Bowman of the Adam Smith Institute supports Citizen’s Basic Income, and she worries that a right-wing version of it might be possible. There are not different left-wing and right-wing versions of Citizen’s Basic Income. There is simply Citizen’s Basic Income: an unconditional and nonwithdrawable regular income for every individual. What happens to the rest of the tax and benefits system is a different matter, and proponents of different political ideologies might have different ideas about what the tax system, contributory benefits, and means-tested benefits ought to look like: but to suggest that it might be a problem that a private company might administer a Citizen’s Basic Income entirely misses the point. A Citizen’s Basic Income is entirely described by its definition, and the rates at which it would be paid for each age group would be fixed by the government of the day. No ongoing administration of any kind would be required: so whoever administered it, it would be paid once a week or once a month, at the same amount, to every individual of the same age.

Equally important: it is simply not true that Citizen’s Basic Income ‘cannot be a progressive initiative as long as the people with the power to implement it are hostile to the welfare state as a whole’. Citizen’s Basic Income can be a left-wing policy, a right-wing policy, a progressive policy, a liberal policy, a green policy … . It is not the possession of any political ideology. It is quite simply a good idea, that would provide everyone with a secure financial platform on which to build.

O’Hagan is of course entirely correct to suggest that a wide-ranging debate about the future of the welfare state needs to happen. She is also correct when she writes that Citizen’s Basic Income ‘has revolutionary potential’: but wrong to suggest that it would not have such potential if it were to be ‘parachuted into a political economy that has been pursuing punitive welfare policies for the last 30 years’. In precisely such a context it would provide individuals and families with choices that they do not currently have. It would of course be essential to ensure that no low-income household experienced a financial loss at the point of implementation: but as research has shown, it is perfectly possible to achieve this; and as the same research shows, a Citizen’s Basic Income implemented in the context of today’s tax and benefits system, along with some minor changes to that system, could achieve significant reductions in inequality and poverty at the same time as offering the financial security and new choices that Citizen’s Basic Income would automatically provide.

O’Hagan’s article is important as it expresses some of the questions that a lot of people are asking. This article offers some responses. We look forward to further debate.