‘Reciprocity’ is in the news again. The UK Parliament’s Work and Pensions Committee is to hold a seminar on how the benefits system can be more firmly based on residency and contributions, and in particular will consider
- ‘the length of time a residency condition could be placed on access to the welfare state so that existing citizens of the UK become eligible, but new arrivals are barred from membership
- for those of working age, at what level could a financial contribution be set
- how a contributory welfare state should credit, for example, citizens who carry out caring responsibilities.’There are two reasons why the Committee will be exploring this area. First, over a long period of time, voters have been withdrawing support for Britain’s welfare state on the basis that they believe it is no longer fair. The polls report that a large proportion of voters believe welfare should only be offered to fellow citizens who fulfil contributory conditions. The Select Committee, as it is concerned with building support for welfare, will consider this issue.
Frank Field MP, the Chairman of the Committee, has said this about the seminar:
There are two reasons why the Committee will be exploring this area. First, over a long period of time, voters have been withdrawing support for Britain’s welfare state on the basis that they believe it is no longer fair. The polls report that a large proportion of voters believe welfare should only be offered to fellow citizens who fulfil contributory conditions. The Select Committee, as it is concerned with building support for welfare, will consider this issue.
The first draft of the book 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income had well over 101 reasons in it. Some of the reasons had to be culled, and one of the culled reasons was ‘reciprocity’. With hindsight, that wasn’t a wise choice. For a lot of people, the idea of reciprocity is at the heart of the concept of a just society. The ‘Blue Labour’ 3 movement within the Labour Party believes, probably correctly, that the majority of people who live in the UK wish to live in a nation characterised by reciprocity rather than in one in which either the market or the state are relied on for the satisfaction of our needs. Ed Miliband caught this mood when he offered a politics of ‘something for something’, and suggested that Income-related Jobseekers’ Allowance should be higher for individuals with more consistent National Insurance Contribution records; and Frank Field catches the same mood when he asks for an income maintenance strategy based on a renewed and enhanced National Insurance system.
The desire for reciprocity is understandable. Many of us like to feel that we are making a contribution, our human dignity can be dented if we cannot provide for ourselves and our dependents and have to rely on others for support, and we aren’t very keen on other people free-riding if we are working hard to support ourselves and our families – and them. All of this is perfectly natural and comprehensible.
But that still leaves unanswered the question: What precisely constitutes reciprocity? At the heart of the idea is two-way traffic. If I do something for you and you then do something for me, then you have reciprocated; and if you do something for me and I then do something for you, then I have reciprocated. The idea of reciprocity does not privilege an order of events: it simply requires that resources of some kind should travel in both directions in a relationship, and that the first transfer of resources should invite an answering transfer of some kind in the opposite direction.
It is therefore strange that in the income maintenance field ‘reciprocity’ usually does connote a particular order of events: that the individual does something for society, and then society does something for the individual. This is the assumption that lies behind the idea that the National Insurance system provides the best model for an income maintenance system characterised by reciprocity. It is an unwarranted assumption. Society doing something for the individual, and then the individual doing something for society, would be just as reciprocal. Society providing each individual with a Citizen’s Income would reduce many people’s marginal deduction rates, and so would make it more likely that they would seek additional earnings, learn new skills, start new businesses, give more time to their communities, come off means-tested benefits (thus saving administrative costs), form permanent relationships: and because their earnings would be likely to be higher they would be better able to lift their families out of poverty and at the same time to pay more Income Tax. There would be a lot more benefits besides: 101 Reasons for a Citizen’s Income might not contain a section on ‘reciprocity’, but it does contain sections on a lot of the ways in which people receiving a Citizen’s Income would be more likely to contribute to society.
Reciprocity is an important idea. A Citizen’s Income would not be a negation of reciprocity. Far from it. It would significantly enhance the reciprocity that all of us – yes, all of us – would experience in our relationship with society: because a Citizen’s Income provided by society would invite a reciprocal response from every one of us.