A Citizen’s Income Convincingly Argued
In ‘Money for Everyone’, Malcolm Torry delivers a blockbuster argument in favour of a Citizen’s Income to wholly or partially replace current benefits. His book is well-researched, well-informed, well-written, and is articulate and readable. His main argument is that, given widespread acceptance of a benefits scheme of some sort, then a Citizen’s Income is by far the best option. Specifically it avoids the disincentives of very high marginal deduction rates of current benefits which create the familiar unemployment and poverty traps. According to Torry, a Citizen’s Income would incentivise employment, training, new business formation, women’s participation rates, and can even reduce teenage pregnancy in Namibia. It is socially cohesive. It is less expensive administratively, less intrusive into the private detail of people’s lives, and less distorting of the markets for labour, goods and services. The Iain Duncan Smith / Steve Webb universal credit comes close, but is based on households rather than individuals as a Citizen’s Income would be, and is therefore deficient.
Torry’s very thorough presentation is worthy of the LSE tradition to which it belongs, established by major figures such as Richard Titmuss whom he frequently quotes. It offers a substantial social commentary. The excellent essay on poverty in chapter 11 is a classic case. Torry works as a vicar in London, and so has widespread awareness and understanding of the life situation of people with lower income struggling with a range of adversity, and this gives him great insight into the effect of benefits systems in the population. His deep study of the benefit system itself enables him to offer a uniquely powerful synthesis. The strength and extent of his argument for a Citizen’s Income appears to render it uncontentious. It is only civil servants whose jobs may be at risk who stand in the way, together with inertia in the political system.
The weak point is the lack of attention to economics, since herein lies one of the most powerful objective arguments for a Citizen’s Income. Only on page 122 does Torry mention the economic argument for a Citizen’s Income, where he presents Stewart Lansley’s argument that ‘income inequality reduces productivity’, so that wages and therefore consumption reduce, leading to the current crisis that only greater equality can resolve. This ignores an alternative powerful economic argument that the crisis has been driven by technology increasing productivity, reducing the wage and consumption element of output, raising output GDP above disposable consumer income, which has been corrected with unsustainable credit. According to this argument, the technology led wage reduction is inevitable and inexorable. Only a Citizen’s Income can replace consumer credit in order to raise consumption to match output GDP. In this model the Citizen’s Income would need to be spent rather than saved, perhaps by being distributed on stored value cards with the value expiring over time. It needs however an alternative theory of money i.e. that money is virtual and its distribution only has to respect output GDP and not be supported by gold reserves or government debt. This removes the need for Torry’s argument on the affordability of Citizen’s Income – it is output GDP which makes it affordable. These arguments would add considerably to Torry’s case. They also dismiss current deficit reduction and austerity policies as the nonsense they are.
* Geoff Crocker is a professional economist whose book A Managerial Philosophy of Technology is published by Palgrave Macmillan.