The most universal benefit of them all

While the UK debates ending universality, economists in America are talking about making income itself universal.

With Labour's decision to push for the end of winter fuel payments for all, Britain has seen yet another step against the principle of universality in benefits this week. But while the tide here is pushing more and more in favour of means-testing every intervention possible, in the US, the opposite debate is being had: should even the largest interventions be universal?

In early May, Mike Konczal wrote an article in the Washington Post proposing a universal basic income (UBI), also called a "citizen's income". The idea is that significant proportions of the social insurance system get replaced with a "poverty-level" income which is given to all, universally and unconditionally. So rather than claiming unemployment benefit when out of work, disability benefit when sick, or a state pension in retirement, you claim a standard sum every month from the age of majority to your death, regardless of your status.

Many of the benefits of a UBI are the same as the benefits of universalising any part of the welfare system: it massively reduces bureaucracy at all stages; it's far easier to get benefits where they need to go; and it removes the stigma of claiming help from the state. For some benefits, even one of those arguments is enough to justify universalising them. So, for example, we don't means test the NHS – among other reasons – because the thought of keeping someone in the emergency room while we check their past six months of payslips is anathema to most people.

But the UBI carries its own additional upsides, by virtue of being so large compared to other benefits. The most important one is that its universality reduces so-called "income traps", points in the tax-and-benefit system where the marginal value of every pound earned drops too low. So, for example, as your earnings rise, you may find that you leave the personal tax allowance, lose working tax credits, and become ineligible for housing benefit all around the same time. That could mean that a job which pays thousands of pounds leads to a take-home pay rise of a tenth of that, giving you a serious incentive not to take it at all.

That problem is also what the Universal Credit is aimed at solving in Britain; but despite the name, it's not a universal benefit, and so it can at best smooth over the problems caused by withdrawal, rather than remove them already.

But Konczal's most interesting point is that there are strong right-wing – or, more accurately, libertarian-right – arguments for a UBI. By removing conditionality of benefits, it also removes a method of state control. It is no longer up to the government, for instance, to determine which types of work experience you can do while still being paid unemployment benefit; nor can they shape society by deciding which types of non-labour activities ought be rewarded – carers, community gardeners, political activist or artists all get the UBI without having to prove their worth.

In fact, as Konczal points out, it's the left which should really be wariest of arguments for a UBI. It has the potential to extend market logic to every reach of society, by equating "being a citizen" with "being paid". That's exactly the sort of thinking Michael Sandel warned against when I spoke to him last month, because, in his words, it "may crowd out attitudes and norms, non-market values, worth caring about".

Konczal's piece sparked a wide debate in the economics community. Despite his strong argument that a UBI ought to be a libertarian idea, many of them opposed it, arguing that handing out a UBI would mean that people would never work, and the government would instantly lose the tax revenue it takes to pay it in the first place.

That argument doesn't quite work; in fact, the understanding as to why that is was the great breakthrough in 19th century economics, the marginal revolution. People tend to make their decisions, not based on absolute levels, but on marginal changes. If you are given a UBI, then you still face the choice as to whether or not to go to work and earn an extra sum of money. And since people working on poverty pay don't tend to decide never to increase their income, it seems likely that a UBI wouldn't discourage much work.

But it would discourage some, because that's the point of it. By removing the link between "having to work" and "starving to death", a UBI would promote a healthier attitude to work, removing the element of fear which forces employees to sell their labour to exploitative employers. Instead, work would occur based on equitable negotiation: if the employee no longer lives in fear that they will be on the streets without a job, their bargaining position is greatly improved.

In the end, it's that outcome which will mean the UBI can never truly catch on among right-wingers – or even the centre-left – leaving the Green Party the only one in the UK to support it. In radically redistributing economic power from capital to labour, it is anathema to the conventional order . That is true despite the fact that elements of it ought to be hugely appealing to people from across the political spectrum. It is freedom-enhancing, bureaucracy-reducing, and in some cases life-saving, but it's also going to remain no more than a thought experiment. That's a crying shame.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Getty
Show Hide image

The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496