A Basic Citizens’ Income (BCI) is one of those subjects that’s fun to think about (if you’re philosophically or politically inclined – I guess other people find it mortally dull, for which I apologise).
It serves as a thought experiment – what if the role of the state wasn’t to punish poverty? – which can lead down some surprising alleyways.
For example what is the right’s attitude to BCI?
Your instinct says the right will absolutely hate a BCI, and you probably wouldn’t be mistaken. It doesn’t exactly fit in with Gideon’s something for nothing culture rhetoric, and its main UK proponents are various leftwingers and the Green Party.
But there’s no inherent reason for the right to adopt a punitive attitude to welfare. If the starting point of any welfare system is how do we encourage entrpreneuralism? (how I hate that word) or how do we minimise state bureacracy?, or even how do we encourage people to work? then BCI becomes a lot more attractive.
Of course – as I always point out – this will not happen, because the starting point of all social policy is how do we punish poverty?
But here are 3 reasons for the right to embrace BCI:
1. It encourages entrepreneurs
The current benefits system deters people from working piecemeal. As soon as you work one single hour, you lose benefits. This means that it’s only worth working if you can work lots of hours on a regular, predictable basis. Working now and again is not only financially pointless, it means you have to deal with the nightmare bureaucracy of the DWP.
Let’s say you’ve worked for a couple of years as a ‘junior’ web developer. You’ve kept up to date with all the latest trends in your field and know you could do a better job than the company that just made you redundant.
A BCI would encourage you to take a risk. You could set yourself up as a self–employed developer and starting bidding for work. You wouldn’t have to rely on being able to secure credit, or a rich mum and dad.
If your business failed you’d have your BCI to fall back on. If it was slow to take off – building a reputation is difficult – and only earned a couple of hundred quid a month you’d still keep that income and pay tax on it.
Who knows – over time you might become a really successful business woman, while the economy gains a high quality web developer. You might start employing people.
2. It rids us of state bureaucracy
The current income support and tax credits system is a Kafkaesque bureaucracy of different rates, forms, ages, sanctions and administrators (although this does create employment, ironically enough. Imagine if there were no poor people to keep tabs on and sanction – no poverty industry.)
If everyone receives BCI regardless of age, marital status, income and employment status, there’s nothing to process except a weekly or monthly payment. No signing on, back to work schemes or changes in circumstances forms.
In the UK, BCI would save £7 billion per year in tax credits and income support administration costs (Word doc).
3. It makes it easier to liberalise employment laws and create a ‘free’ market
The right argues minimum hour contracts, a minimum wage and redundancy protection rights ‘stifle’ business growth.
While far more ‘protective’ countries than the UK seem to manage perfectly well (Germany, most obviously), other traditionally social democratic countries such as Denmark have adopted an even more neoliberal approach.
Unlike the UK, Denmark has extremely high unemployment benefit levels. In effect, there’s a contract between the state, workers and employers. Employers can hire and fire at will, but workers don’t face ruinous consequences if they lose their jobs.
In the UK there’s no such contract, which makes employment law liberalisation extremely unfair and dangerous to workers.
BCI could form part of a contract between workers and employers. It would allow employers to hire and fire more freely, while giving workers a basic level of security. The government could abolish the minimum wage, meaning market forces would determine pay.
BCI appeals to a strain of anarchism common to neoliberal and leftwing thought. It’s a shame such a rational, practical idea that works across ideologies doesn’t have a chance in the UK.