Why Citizen’s Income is a good idea

One of the Green Party’s key policies at the next election will be an unconditional basic income (UBI) or Citizen’s Income of £72 per week, replacing many benefits such as Job Seeker’s Allowance. The proposed Citizen’s Income would allow unemployed people to do voluntary work without having their benefits cut. People could choose to work shorter weeks, decreasing unemployment. Keynes predicted we would work 15 hour weeks, so what happened? According to the anthropologist David Graeber, when technology decreased the amount of labour needed for manufacturing, what he calls “bullshit jobs” were created. The people working in these roles don’t see the point in them, but the market creates these jobs anyway. The market is distorted by wealth disparities, and thus reflects what the very rich think is important rather than what most people regard as socially useful. If a Citizen’s Income were in place people would have a safety net, allowing them to retrain if, for example, they thought their job was not socially useful or interesting. This way, employers cannot use their employees’ fear of unemployment to exploit them.

Citizen’s Income could support aspiring musicians and artists. It is well known that unfettered capitalism does not do a great job of supporting the best art. Most people do not have the funds necessary to support valuable creative projects. For example Transformers was the highest grossing film of 2014, but it seems that next to nobody actually enjoyed it. Think of your favourite band: I’m 99% certain Justin Bieber is making more money than they are. Devotees of local music scenes regularly see their favourite bands quit to get “real jobs”, which may, in fact, be dreary and not clearly necessary “bullshit jobs”. A Citizen’s Income would also further feminist goals by compensating women for the unpaid caring work they do, and would help women who suffer domestic violence, but were previously unable to leave due to financial constraints.

The political economist and philosopher Van Parijs calls the opportunities that would be afforded to people by an unconditional income “real freedom”. Capitalism does not currently allow real freedom: some people may have disposable income that they are free to spend as they wish, but even the well-off have their working lives largely dictated by the market. Communism on the other hand, dictates people’s working conditions without even allowing people freedom as consumers. Van Parijs’s real-libertarian position allows people freedom of choice in how they live their lives.

The idea of an unconditional income has been supported by a number of great thinkers for hundreds of years, such as Thomas Paine (one of the founding fathers of the United States) and the philosopher John Stuart Mill. James Tobin – the Nobel Prize winning economist best known for the “Tobin tax” – supported a similar idea: negative income tax. Citizen’s Income is not, as The Telegraph seems to think, a bad idea concocted by Natalie Bennett last week.

Some journalists have triumphantly declared that the Green Party have no plan to fund this. Of course, the Green Party’s economic competence is an unknown quantity, but it is not impossible to implement a UBI in a developed economy such as ours. The Citizen’s Income Trust has published a fully costed plan for Citizen’s Income which would result in £6bn savings due to the elimination of administrative costs that come from deciding who is entitled to benefits and who is not, as well as the elimination of tax reliefs and allowances that only benefit the middle class. The economy would be stimulated, as poor people spend all their money, whereas the rich tend to add to their savings rather than spending, (having more money than they know what to do with).

Another objection to the scheme is that some people may not deserve the money. Van Parijs asks this question: should we feed people who surf all day and smoke pot all evening? Besides the fact that anybody who wanted to spend their evenings smoking pot would have to get a job to fund it, we live in an age of rampant consumerism, and even the very lazy are generally willing to work in order to have extra money. According to Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: ‘Everyone has the right to […] food, clothing, housing and medical care.” It is not right to decide who deserves to eat. The government feeds criminals and gives them somewhere to sleep, while innocent people can die of exposure on the streets. Maybe the unusually lazy would benefit unfairly from Citizen’s Income, but we have to accept others’ undeserved good luck in life, financial or otherwise. Capitalism distributes money to the ‘undeserving’. We accept landlords’ largely unearned money and other rent seeking behaviour. Preventing bad things happening to good people is a noble cause, preventing good things happening to ‘bad’ or lazy people is based on resentment.

It is, for the most part, not in people’s natures to do nothing productive with their lives. When a basic income was introduced experimentally in a Canadian town, only teenagers and mothers worked substantially less. Those who advocate capitalism, as it currently functions, as the only means for social progress are misunderstanding people’s motivation when they create or invent new things. Although I would be cautious about taking a “do what you love and you’ll never need to work again” approach, many people do enjoy using their creativity and intelligence for their own sakes’ or to help others. Taking computing as an example: Alan Turing, the father of modern computing, worked for the government and universities; Tim Berners-Lee didn’t make a profit out of the web, because that would have prevented it from being a universal space; Aaron Swartz developed RSS and creative commons licensing when he was still a child, and when he made a profit from his work developing Reddit he was uninterested and devoted himself to finding ways to use his abilities for social and political purposes.

A Citizen’s Income should consequently appeal to the left and the right. It already has widespread support with 300,000 people signing a European’s Citizen’s Initiative for a UBI in 2014.

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