Peter Wilby lost a lot of my respect when he wrote an unpleasant review of ‘What’s Left?’, but his piece in Thursday’s Guardian was actually quite sane. He argues that “It isn't transport policy or education policy that hits poor people hardest. It's poverty.” He continued,
This may seem a very obvious point. But the right has spent the past 30 years trying to convince everybody that it isn't true. Even policies designed to tackle poverty directly are said to make it worse. The minimum wage, we were wrongly told, would destroy jobs. Welfare is said to rot character, or to trap people in poverty - a problem that could be easily solved by making many means-tested benefits universal or possibly, as political philosophers such as Columbia University's Brian Barry propose, introducing a basic subsistence income that everybody receives from the state.
Well some of the ‘right’, anyway. There are a number of loons who insist that a good dose of cutting welfare will give the poor the incentive to get off their arses and become self-reliant without actually spotting that the most enterprising might do that through robbing their mews cottage. I can only see the withdrawal of subsistence as an act of violence against the poor if unaccompanied by alternatives. But the idea of a citizen’s income is one that has had followers amongst libertarians and redistributionists alike. Brian Barry is from the social democratic left, building on Robert Theobald’s 1966 book, The Guaranteed Income: The Next Step in Economic Evolution?. But the scheme has also been supported by the likes of Milton Friedman, whilst the Centre for Policy Studies issued a pamphlet in 1984 on it (Stephen Davies: Beveridge Revisited: new foundations for tomorrow's welfare), and The Institute for Economic Affairs has published on it too. I believe that it is still Green Party policy.
Whilst libertarians would agree with Wilby that ‘the big state that the right so deplores could be a great deal smaller’ if the basic income eliminated the complex mire of income-related benefits and interventionary schemes and programmes, this is not the main argument that unites left and right libertarians.
The exercise of liberty can only be meaningful if it is without artificial constraint. Economic insecurity militates against risk, poverty incapacitates people, stripping them of even simple choices. Collective measures to ensure security liberate people in all kinds of different ways. At the moment the government is deeply wedded to the idea of conditionality, not only based on income but also on behaviour. In repeating its mantra of ‘no rights without responsibilities’ it is extending its power to attempt to shape behaviour to meet its own idea of what a ‘responsible’ citizen should be. Of course that idea is firmly middle class. It is working class attitudes and mores that are attacked – ‘they are fat’ – ‘they smoke’ – ‘look at their disgusting children with their hoodies’. This is nothing new. The following is a quote from a Devon fisherman about temperance campaigners, published in 1911,
There's a lot to be learnt in pubs, an' 'tis a fine affair, I reckon, for to hae a good chatter over a glass or two o' beer. If you didn't do that you'd go to bed an' sleep. An' that's all some o'em wants 'ee to do, seems so - work an' sleep - an' never enjoy no life.
The citizen’s income is certainly worth exploring and there are organizations like the Basic Income Earth Network and the Citizen's Income Trust promoting it. The attraction lies in the fact that it can be more than just an anti-poverty device, it can enhance liberty and let people enjoy a life – their life, the life they want to lead. They can have fun too.