The Rape Clause, Welfare, Needs and Resources..Some Thoughts

The Rape Clause, Welfare, Needs and Resources..Some Thoughts

I’ve been troubled by the recent political debate in Scotland over the rape clause. For those who may have missed it or are not in the UK, the ‘rape cause’ is a section of the UK welfare system bureaucracy which that requires women who were raped and subsequently conceived a child, to complete or have a form completed in order to access welfare payments in the form of child tax credits. Although some have take a different view, for many including women’s groups, NGOs, advisers, child campaigners and progressive politicians, it is self-evident that this policy is wrong. The debate has been particularly fierce in Scotland, and the Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson attacked for her support for the clause whilst all main political parties except the Tories in Scotland oppose it. 

The words I’ve seen used to describe the policy include: abhorrent, vile, inhumane, disgusting, ‘has no place in civilised society’. And I find myself in a place opposite to where I would normally be, disagreeing with people I normally agree with. Because, it is not self-evident to me that the policy is wrong, (but I certainly admit I may be wrong on this). I suspect it is the certainty of others that is bothering me about the issue, and what I see as muddled thinking about fairness. So, in this blog I want to offer a few tentative thoughts.


By Way Of Background 

I am not comfortable writing about a issue so serious as rape and using the debate around it to illustrate broader ideas about fairness. So let me say from the start, that clearly rape is an appalling crime, as much about power and humiliation as it is about sex. And hopefully regular readers will agree that I am a supporter of fairness, justice and opportunity, with at least some radical ideas, such as my ideas on a fair society, support for the poorest or ideas on basic income.

I should also make it clear that I oppose the Tories cutting of welfare payments, I think the coalition government freezes to benefits were a mistake, and I think the entire UK welfare system is in need of urgent reform with a much greater focus on the needs of the least well off.

The clause itself arose from a UK government decision to limit child tax credits to the first two children (note this is from a certain date and applies to new children conceived not retrospectively). In doing so, the UK government then introduced a series of exemptions to make the policy (as they saw it) fairer and more just. Those exceptions include multiple births, adoption and non-consensual conception.

So why on earth would I even pause in my condemnation of the clause, let alone question others on it? After all Kezia Dugdale was widely praised across the political spectrum (a rare thing) for her speech to the Scottish Parliament on the issue. Campaigners say it shames and humiliates rape victims, may set back their mental health in having to relive the experience, stigmatises and picks on victims and lower income families and doesn’t even save much money. After all the number of women with more than two children who are raped and then conceived will be relatively small and the costs of paying them low  (estimates are £20-75m per annum in Scotland) so this is seen as a new low from a despicable and heartless UK/Tory government, one in a long line of despicable, heartless and even evil decisions.


So Why Not Oppose the Clause? 

I’m one of the few non-Tories who isn’t immediately convinced  by the Dugdale speech, or the ‘rape clause ‘ campaign, or why it’s self-evident a 2 child limit for child tax credits is an egregious wrong. If people could bear with me, I want to try and strip out the emotion, and the labelling, to allow me to understand what the arguments are. As far as I can see there are six possible arguments which I list below. I’d like to pick them up one by one and offer a view on each. The possible arguments I can think of are:

1. The requirement for proof is in principle reprehensible?
2. The current or likely plans to implement the testing will be intrusive, humiliating or in some other way unacceptable when delivered?
3. The cap on two-children non-retrospectively in one element of the welfare system is unacceptable either in principle or because of its impacts on family or child wellbeing ?
4. The two-cap limit is just too low?
5. The principle of benefit caps is just wrong and any and all welfare has to be based on need?
6. Some other reason…?


Argument 1- The requirement for proof is in principle reprehensible

This is what is apparently self-evident to most. The argument is that even considering asking women who have been raped to ‘prove it’ is just wrong and sickening. I can certainly see why intuitively people would think so. My problem with this is that if we don’t do so, we are possibly opening up the system to fake claims, which although it may seem callous and wrong to even suggest may happen, is a possibility. And I would point out that for other parts of the system as I understand it, such as criminal injuries compensation, a more intrusive process is required. Now of course two wrongs don’t make a right and those who make argument 1 may simply be unaware of how other parts of the system operate or may not care. I suspect for many people even discussing this is just wrong and nothing I can write will change that, so if this is the reason for objecting to the rape clause I can obviously respect that, whilst I just disagree. In my view, rightly or wrongly, whilst we can and should boost the resources available for welfare, and while we can and should consider alternatives such as basic income schemes, whilst we have the current system, it is legitimate to consider in principle asking  for some form of evidence in order to support claims, no matter how sensitive. However I am talking about that in principle, rather than in practice so perhaps argument 2 is more compelling?


2. The current or likely plans to implement the testing will be intrusive, humiliating or in some other way unacceptable when delivered?

Advocates for women, those who are victims, those who provide support services have all argued that the current proposals are intrusive, and will set back the victims by forcing them to relieve the trauma. I am certainly not qualified to judge this and obviously respect the views of those who advocate for rape victims. If the evidence was compelling that the process proposed had this effect, then I think argument 2 becomes compelling. To date, I’ve not seen evidence from doctors or social workers that suggest the evidence is that. If it did, then yes, I think the proposed system should be changed. But note that argument 2 isn’t saying that asking for evidence is wrong in principle, just that it is wrong in practice. That means, presumably, that if you only object to the clause on practical grounds, you will be willing to support it if the current process can be changed in a way you find acceptable. If it isn’t possible to agree on and find such a system, then I agree the clause should be scrapped.


3. The cap on two-children non-retrospectively in one element of the welfare system is unacceptable either in principle or  because of its impacts on family or child wellbeing ?

This argument would make the claim that limiting welfare payments for children is just wrong in principle. Or that whilst in principle it might be ok, the impacts on families or child wellbeing in practice is unacceptable. I suspect many who feel strongly about arguments 1 and 2 also support argument 3.

Remember that the changes being introduced are not retrospective, so that we are not talking about a situation where current families with more than two children lose these benefits. The situation applies from April 2017 and for new children after that date, and excludes families where, for example, twins were born unexpectedly where two kids already exist.

For information, ONS stats tells us that currently about 15% of families have three or more kids– I don’t have the stats to hand on that breakdown by income decile but am willing to bet that on average poorer families have more kids.

If the policy was being applied retrospectively, I would be opposed to it as it would jeopardise the welfare of kids whose parents had legitimately made plans based upon an expected income level. Now, many advocates will no doubt claim that the removal of the freedom to have more than two children and have the state support that, will jeopardise those future kids’ welfare as well. I want to come back to that below.

But it seems a difficult to me to sustain an argument that a change which applies only to future decisions, and which is argued is just wrong in principle, is clearly wrong and nothing more needs to be said. Why is it wrong in principle? Why is it wrong that the state draws a line beyond which it will not support family decisions made with the knowledge of the rules on support? (Remember we’re setting aside child welfare for now). I suspect people think so because of the impact on children’s welfare or because of their views on fairness, which I tackle below.

4. The two-cap limit is just too low?

I have sympathy with this argument. If many families are already 2-child families, then a 2-child limit does not account well for unplanned pregnancies or loss of income through illness or redundancy, and the evidence is that immigration for the moment is increasing family size. It is on that basis possible to make an argument that a 2-child limit is discriminatory towards immigrants, and as I noted above, it seems likely to me that poorer family are likely to have more children. Indeed this is one of the main arguments made by Alison Thewliss, a leading campaigner on the issue :

“As of midnight last night, a two child limit on child tax credits and universal credit – which is tantamount to social engineering – came into force. It largely penalises families who are already in work, so this has very little to do with reducing the welfare bill but is, instead, an ideological attack on the lowest earning families in our society.”

So it seems to me, a more costly, but also fairer change, would be to make the limit at 3 children- though this would affect a much smaller number families and presumably saves the treasury much less cash, which is why it wasn’t proposed.

But hold on! We’re now a long way from angry rhetoric about policies being vile and disgusting aren’t we? We are now debating changes not in principle but in practice, accepting that the state has the right to limit welfare payments according to public rules, and are merely debating the detail of those rules aren’t we?

Not so fast. I think whilst the debate might be less emotive when talking about the level of the cap compared to the overall rape clause debate, there is still real anger about the change, reflected in Alison Thewlis’s comment quoted above. I think many on reflection might say that the rape clause, shocking as it is for them, is a symbol of the problems with the direction of UK welfare policy, that can be so warped and morally bankrupt as to come up with such obvious outrages and unfairnesses in the first place.

So we now need to discuss the final element of the possible arguments against this, argument 5. Here I struggle but will try and set out what I think as clearly as I can.


5. The principle of benefit caps is just wrong and any and all welfare has to be based on need

If readers have made it this far, my comments may have invited a mix of scorn, hostility, disbelief that a so-called liberal could be even debating these issues, and perhaps a sense that it is wrong for a man to be pontificating on issues like this. To re-iterate, I intend no disrespect to victims, or to women, or those whose expertise lies in supporting them. What I am trying to do is understand why people may feel so strongly about this issue, debate the arguments and offer my views.

In discussing argument 3, I set aside concerns about child welfare arising from the 2-child policy. I now want to consider them directly as part of a discussion about what fairness actually means.

There will always be limits to resources in society, no matter how wealthy or successful. A fair and just society is ideally one where people feel we are genuinely all in this together, that they have the resources, the opportunities and the support from society and government to achieve their ambitions. This includes a proper ‘insurance scheme’ to manage a range of risks that otherwise may overwhelm the individual. I previously blogged on this at length here and here and here:

Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society. ‘

So, we expect and need government to help us deliver a fair society, and we expect and need government to help us manage risks that may otherwise ruin our plans and render our lives worthless.

But note that in any genuinely fair society, we are not promising unlimited resources for any citizen. On the surface, it might seem to be the job of government to make sure its citizens are happy, that they have the resources they need and that their ambitions are met. Many people think that we need to equalise ‘welfare’ or ‘wellbeing’ or ‘success’ or equalise opportunity. But a bit of reflection will show that this is too shallow and glib.

Briefly, if someone has extravagant desires and wishes in order to deliver what (they say) is a happy or successful life, or maximise their welfare, are we as a society through government duty bound to meet those needs in delivering our duty of fairness? If the person in question wants a lifetime of free champagne and cigars and a mansion whilst not working, because he or she says this is he choice of life that will make them as happy as everyone else (and lets assume objective evidence of some kind supports their claim that they are indeed that sort of person that enjoys luxury and hates working), are we required to deliver that in the interests of fairness and equal welfare? No, obviously not, that would be absurd.

Equally, if we start out in society giving people equal resources but some deploy them to increase their skills, success and wealth, whilst others spend them on drinking, surf-boarding and gambling, are we required at a later date to take resources from the successful person and give it to the idler? Again, and for rather more complex reasons that I will set out another time, but which surely many would accept are intuitively right, the answer is no. Or at the very least, our decisions on fairness and redistribution need to take account of personal responsibility, whilst compensating for disability, lack of opportunity or other factors holding people back.

So, a brief examination of fairness and equality in a just society tells us that whilst we need to design society for fairness and for supporting people in their life plans, we are not required in the interests of fairness to meet their every whim, and to compensate later those whose life choices did not enable them to deliver the same level of success as someone who chose to work harder, spend more of their time and effort on material success and so on. These are not criticisms of the less successful or those who chose to idle away their lives- that is their choice and a liberal approach respects it, as long as it does no harm to others. But a liberal society based on fairness recognises limits, and once a just and acceptable level of resources has been distributed, expects the person involved to take special responsibility for their own life and its outcomes.


Ok, so what? 

Before I go any further, it is worth saying that this is a very brief version of arguments that readers will find in John Rawls’ works, and especially Ronald Dworkin in his work on Sovereign Virtue. If what I have briefly written here is unconvincing that is my fault and not theirs. Secondly, it is worth saying that of course we make special provision for those who have disabilities, in order to provide them with the means needed to live a life of meaning and purpose.

So why the extended diversion into the theory of equality? Because it should be clear that essential to a discussion of fairness and welfare, is a clearer understanding of need, and whether that need is ‘genuine’ or trivial, excessive or in some other way not justified. If we expect humans to take responsibility for their own lives, and do not owe them an unlimited transfer of state resources under conditions of plausible freedom, then we can begin to see that argument 5 (that a welfare cap is wrong in principle and that all payments need to be based on need), does itself need some explanation and qualification.

If by need we meant the extravagant unnecessary claims of a person wedded to champagne and cigars, then clearly we do not need to pay them under a welfare system, and no one would suggest that we do. But buried in the assumptions of many that welfare caps are wrong in principle, is that the current welfare payments are indeed based on need, and that there is an objective ‘reasonable’ standard by which we can judge distribution.

That may be so, and some academics attempt to set such objective standards, based upon thinking such as minimum income needed for sizes of families to take a full part in society, or references to percentage income relative to a median income, or other bottom up calculations of consumption based on cost. I don’t mean to suggest that such calculations are wrong, or have no value.

But what I am trying to suggest that the concept of fairness in welfare is less simple than it seems,and that we need to think hard about what objective standard we are using in redistributing resources from one group to another. If we had no benefit cap, are we comfortable that it would be possible for a family on benefits to earn more than average wages, which in practice are more than most families earn because of the effect of high-earners? What about the infamous cases of families of 10 living at state largesse on incomes far in excess of ordinary people? Often progressives rightly hate the demonising of welfare scroungers, and in practice such cases are rare, but that’s beside the point- the average citizen is surely right to feel instinctively that something has gone wrong if such situations are allowed routinely.

Since we know from above that 85% of UK families have two children or less, and the current benefit cap is set to average earnings, there is prima facie a case to say that limiting transfers to other families so that their income does not rise above this, is fair.

Similarly, if we consider objective standards to be important in setting the level of welfare, and if the benefit cap allows families to earn the average wage of families across the UK, what is the problem with either a general or a two child cap? The argument runs that we do not have general responsibilities to fund unlimited desires of families or individuals, that capping transfers of income to limit those to that of the average is just the sort of objective standard we need, and that in that case the whole approach is fine.

Of course, things are not so straightforward. Let’s now reintroduce the needs of children. Children are just born into families and do not chose their life circumstances. It is not their fault, but they will surely suffer the consequences if they are born into a large family (say 5 children) whose income is capped at average family levels for those with 2 children. In this case our seemingly simple objective test of fairness- linking transfers to only allow for average earnings- appears wrong in the sense that children born to poorer families will potentially suffer. And alert readers will surely criticise me for suggest in one place that universal income including inalienable payments to children is a good idea, but that in another place arguing that a cap on welfare payments of 2 children is perfectly acceptable.

One further complication is that in one sense, it matters not a jot what the level of child tax credits are. After all, child benefit payment itself is not capped per child, and even if it was, it is the overall level of income that matters. None the less, the argument remains that larger poorer families may suffer under any plan to cap welfare. A simple way out is to promise higher wages via a higher national minimum wage, thus reducing the need for state support via income transfers. But of course, need is relative so its likely that any higher level of wages might also raise expectations of resources needed to take part in society, thus possibly eliminating some or all of the benefit of the higher national minimum wage. And anyway, whilst worthwhile in its own right, this route merely dodges the difficult question under discussion.

But yet again, do not parents owe some sort of debt to society, some sort of responsibility to the rest of us, to ensure that they limit the number of children to what they can afford? Isn’t that a basic responsibility we can all support? Well, on the surface yes, but what about unexpected changes to income or health that mean suddenly a large family can’t receive the income expected. What about all that talk about government owing a debt to its citizens to ensure that it insures for the risks that its citizens can’t manage on their own. And what about the dignity and life chances of children who did nothing to deserve the poorer life chances and circumstances they may be born into?

So, after an extended discussion, what to conclude?


Readers, I don’t know…

I confess these issues are beyond me at the moment. I started out with the contentious claim that maybe, maybe the rape clause might be justified or at least that it wasn’t as self-evident as people claimed, and that the issue was in at least some aspects an empirical not an ‘in principle’ matter. I moved on to discuss the theory behind fairness, and gave a brief (an therefore probably garbled) view of the issues around fairness, and the limits of our responsibilities to each other through state and government, given the need for people to take responsibility for their own lives and the consequences of that.

But whilst I think that ‘personal responsibility for life’ argument holds for adults, it is much more difficult to sustain for families who have needs that depend on the number of children they have. And so I am stuck.

On the one hand I’m clear that society does not owe a duty to meet the life plans of all of its citizens no matter how costly or thoughtless- instead it owes a duty to ensure that by some reasonable benchmark, people are provided with the support and resources and social resources to achieve their life plans. It seems plausible to me to argue that for people with no children, a benefit cap that ensures that they have no higher incomes when unemployed or unfit for work, than those working full time, is prima facie fair. This would of course exclude those with disability or other special needs. It seems fair to me because if they claim to have higher needs to support their maximum happiness, or welfare, or ‘success as a life-plan’, then the state can reasonably respond by saying it has taken steps to ensure that up to the average levels of income are available, and that no more are justified,with the implication that in this case the individuals needs are not justified, or at least it is not justified that other citizens (via the state and government) should support them.

On the other hand, children bear no responsibility for the life circumstances into which they are born, and should not be unfairly punished simply because thoughtless, or unlucky or unhealthy parents are deprived of welfare payments needed to ensure their children have the life they deserve and the resources they need.

So, for the moment, I can only summarise by saying I just don’t know from a theoretical perspective how to reconcile a conclusion about personal responsibility with an argument about need where children are concerned. It seems to me these sorts of discussions point to a fundamental problem with at least three things:

  • the intrusive complexity of the existing UK welfare system
  • the lack of rationale behind why we make payments in the way we do, and the subsequent emotive arguments that draw more on populism, polling and focus groups than theory, and don’t seem to be able to say what fairness and equality of resources actually means in a coherent way
  • the particular problems of trying to resolve the responsibilities of parents to society with the needs of the children born to them, within the content of a capped, rules based welfare approach.

For the moment, it seems to me that if we’re unsure, we should err on the side of the child. So, until I can work out my thoughts more clearly, I would either scrap the 2-child limit, or raise it to 3. Not very convincing I admit. Thanks for reading.

New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

New Ideas Number 1- Public Ownership But Not As We Know It Jim

I promised new ideas when I started out on this blog, so this week I thought I’d make good on the promise. I want to set our briefly an idea for a new understanding of, or means of, public ownership. Or more precisely, my take on what is probably a well-known idea.

When we think of public ownership, too often we think of strikes, poor service, inefficiency or Ministers fiddling about with the decisions of managers, as Gerald Kaufman talked about in his great little book on How To Be a Minister. Or we think of images like these:

But I want to suggest that there is more to public ownership than coal mining or other giant monopoly industries, or great swathes of remote forest and upland. This website gives a pretty good (if standard) take on common ideas.

I also want to discount the traditional British form of public ownership, where we assume the state must own the property and take decisions on our behalf e.g. Brtish Steel, British Leyland, the forests estates etc. That leads to poorly thought through proposals to sell off public land by ‘passing ministers’ with too much power and not enough awareness of tradition and place, when proposed either at UK or Scottish levels.

I think the history of public ownership in the UK is very mixed, and has always been subject to passing political whim. Ministers will always be tempted to meddle in the running of businesses, either by second guessing management, or stripping out profit, or denying capital, or using price as a constraint on demand or by simply removing the competitive edge- managers know if they mess up the state will always be there to pick up the pieces. And so many right wingers want things to fail to justify privatisation. So, I’d say there are practical and theoretical reasons (1) to be cautious about the traditional form of public ownership in the UK, without ruling it out entirely of course.

I also don’t mean to say that the sort of mechanical socialism and Fabianism that dominated Labour and left-wing thinking for so long is the only way. But instead that of course that are many other means and forms of ownership- from the ancient world of estovers and pannage, to modern forms of common land and access , to Rochdale cooperative principles and mutuals.

But the problem with the traditional approach is that it tends to assume only two main actors- the private sector and the state, with no room for real members of the public. The problem with other forms of ownership such as common land, mutuals, co-operatives and others, is that either not enough people want the hassle of running the show themselves, or that they are too small to really affect trends, or that they are still subject to passing whims on taxation, regulation and incentives.

So What Is The Big Idea?

 So, enough with the throat-clearing and down to business. What is my idea?

My idea is simply this- that ownership of public assets should be transferred from the state to the public. More precisely, those who meet certain rules of UK citizenship will automatically become the owners of state assets. As owners they will have rights and responsibilities, and it will be for them as owners to decide on the future of major policy decisions including sell-off of local land, closure of facilities, or privatisation.

What do I mean by state assets. I mean firstly the transfer of all crown lands from the arcane fiction of the ‘Crown’ to members of the public. Not just that we would own (small shares in!) Buckingham Palace, but that we’d own the sea-bed, the foreshore, the airwaves and so on. Secondly I mean that at a regional and local level we’d own the roads, the railways, the land, the hospitals, schools, council buildings and so on.

Setting out one more time- whilst management of the assets would be vested in our representatives (and through them public employees)  as now, either at national, regional or local government levels, the legal ownership of the assets would be shared across UK citizens.

Now, we’d need some rules first of all about who qualifies. My suggestion is that anyone who has reached voting age and who is on the electoral register is entitled to a fraction of ownership and would be recognised as such. We don’t have to make ownership conditional on electoral registration of course but it might provide a boost to voting and participation in democracy.

Secondly, we’d need to define what rights and responsibilities such ownership entails. My view is that responsibilities are ‘civic’ in the sense of keeping up to date with trends and developments associated with the assets. And secondly that if a vote is called on something, one is required to participate. But I believe these responsibilities should be modest, whilst also empowering.

What does the idea mean in practice? Well, I’d suggest at local level that anyone on the local electoral register would be considered a part owner of the assets from all state bodies in the area- including government buildings, parks, roads, schools, forests, common land, hospitals and so on.

Secondly, it means that the managers of the assets- our current state-led pubic bodies, would take on a new role of stewardship, not the sometimes rather technocratic, aloof and arrogant ‘ownership to do with as we please on a change of political leadership’ approach we (too often) see. I believe for key local assets often at the centre of controversy- land sold off for new developments, planning decisions, closure of hospitals, that representative bodies will need to work far harder to secure agreement.

My idea is that according to some local ‘standing orders’ that define the limits of state authority and the circumstances under which change is allowed, that the state and local managers will need to be far more engaged in place, in community and in explaining and justifying decision making. We can imagine for example a proposal to sell off a school playing field where either all local people in the council area, or a defined subset ‘affected’ by the plans, will be able to demand, hold a referendum and defeat the proposal, perhaps much like a shareholder resolution can defeat the management of a company or send a strong signal on the desired direction of travel.

We can imagine consultative discussions held at national and local level with citizens (as owners) on the ideas a state entity is considering, before they are activated or indeed placed in manifestos. We can imagine a dedicated public body, analogous to the electoral commission, (the ‘Consultative Commission’ perhaps), taking national or regional or indeed local ‘rolling polls’ of the views of citizen-owners prior to an election campaign. We might find that citizens recognise a central hospital would be cheaper and more effective but want to keep their local hospital. We might find that citizens like keeping local job centres and tax offices or reject out of hand private companies running certain public functions.

One obvious issue to consider is the precise relationship between local and national decision making- but I think that can be overcome with enough thought. A second obvious issue is to define the circle of ‘affected’ people tightly enough so a local desire for action isn’t swamped by a national or regional push-back, whilst at the same time allowing meaningful and engaged citizens across a defined but not just hyper-local area. We would need to think carefully to avoid the problems encountered with the referenda-heavy, money-heavy policy and campaigning approach seen in California. We would need to look for ways for assets to be protected from a generation simply ‘cashing in’ as many did over the transfer of building societies from mutuals to private companies in the 1990s. 


Why Propose This? 

To me, this is a radically different proposal from standard common ownership. We are asserting the genuine power of citizens, as the owners of state assets, which, after all, their taxes and efforts have paid for. I hope it will improve the sense that citizens have of engagement with, and empowerment over, the political process.

I hope it would sharpen up the performance of state actors, across the education, council, health, environment, tax, social security and transport communities. I expect it would reduce the power of ideologues, winner-takes-all political administrations, think tanks and media moguls. I hope it would even reduce vandalism and disrespect for public property because after all, the owner in this case is the person considering the damage!

More broadly as well as linking ownership rights to voting and electoral registration, we could link it to the idea of a basic income, which I blogged on before. 


What Are the Downsides? 

Clearly I don’t have all the details worked out so much more work would be needed to translate this outline sketch into serious policy proposals. It may be that the idea isn’t radical at all, and is common in other countries (please let me know if it is!).

More work would be needed on legal definitions to ensure watertight ownership, and to define a ‘scheme of delegation and authority’ from local citizens to state entities. If we did take over Crown property, some more legal work would be needed to overcome centuries of daft constitutional showboating, overhangs and silly fiction.

More seriously, we’d need to undertake a large campaign of awareness raising to ensure people really did feel empowered and understood their rights and responsibilities. A crucial point as I mentioned above is to provide enough ’empowerment’ that a genuine local wish to prevent something occurring can be created, whilst avoiding a tidal-wave of NIMBY-style inertia and factionalism. But I see no reason why with enough care, such problems couldn’t be overcome.


Part of A Bigger Picture? 


Readers may have noticed that such a scheme, radical as it may sound, does not by any means tackle all of the fundamental issues facing us. Whilst I do believe it would go a long way to increase the sense of engagement with the state and empowerment that citizens feel, it only touches the surface of inequality issues.

In particular, it ignores the pattern and distribution of private ownership of resources- land, income and wealth, company shares, rental income and dividend etc. There are some fascinating ideas on newer forms of capitalism that I want to explore at a later date, centred around market socialism ideas.

To finish though , the real reason I think the idea would be worth exploring is back to my ideas on a fair, equal and liberal society:

‘It is fundamentally whether I feel I am an equal citizen of equal worth, with all the dignity, freedom and ability to execute my life plan that I expect.’

In that blog I set out a principle for just such a society which I think is relevant here:

Principle 5 The basic structure of society should be designed such that power is dispersed politically at multiple levels and across multiple geographical areas, consistent with the achievement of other principles and goals

I believe that we simply must go beyond discussions about tax and spend wealth transfers, about public vs private and get to a point where citizens really do feel equal, empowered and ‘all in it together’. I hope the idea I’d proposed might have some merit on the journey towards that ambition.

Thanks for reading.



(1) John Roemer A Future for Socialism (1994) Verso Books ISBN-13: 978-0860916536


Steering Us Towards More Inclusive Growth…

Steering Us Towards More Inclusive Growth…

This week I want to say something about the idea of inclusive growth. I want to particularly draw on the excellent work of the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission  in doing so, but then go further.

Like many , I’ve always found the idea of endless economic growth to be problematic. As we know, economic activity takes place within a broader social system, which also is nested within a still broader natural system. I’ll leave the problems created for the environment by economic growth for another day. But clearly, within the system we have, a lack of economic growth can be a source of human misery because of the resulting impacts on incomes, jobs and overall consumption, government revenue and so on. This video from the Bank of England explains this quite nicely.

The problem though is that there has been a tendency to assume that economic growth is all we need for delivery of broader human goods, such as job security, empowerment, human health and wellbeing, and equality and reduction in poverty.

However modern Britain (not just Britain of course) tells us that strong economic growth can exist alongside rising inequality, poor health, low job security, discrimination, rising income disparities, poor skills, and a host of other societal ills.

So, as I wrote in an earlier blog on pay ratios, we need a package of measures for fairer work and more inclusive growth and I’d like to explore some of those ideas here.

Why Have We Arrived Here? 

So why have we arrived at a situation where we can have a strongly growing economy  but without some or all of the anticipated benefits of economic growth? Firstly, it’s worth saying that this isn’t exactly new- Fred Hirsch was writing about some of the problems with economic growth in the 1970s and many more have since.

Very simply put, I believe that as the political consensus began to accept the market and liberal economics as the best means to secure the advancement of social aims, we have ended up taking too shallow a view. We haven’t discriminated as well as we should have. We have tended to accept growth as a good thing, and then sought to redistribute the fruits of growth afterwards without looking at the quality of that growth and the problems it creates in achieving the growth. Often, and in addition, we’ve not made a very good case as to why economic growth matters, and we’ve taken too glib a view of issues of empowerment and identity that are clearly important to people, often suggesting they are holding back liberal trade and are relics of a time gone by. Arguably, this leads us to conditions ripe to be exploited by populists and even potentially underpins things such as Brexit. If people read and hear about how well the economy is doing, but can’t relate that to their own lives, it surely breeds a toxic mixture of cynicism, despair, disillusionment and anger.

I tried to show in my post on societal risks however that it is incumbent on governments to actively think through and manage the risks that its citizens face. Or, going back to first principles, that we need to look at the basic structures of society to ensure they are set up in a way that supports empowerment, dignity, the individual life plans that people make, and that sense that we are truly ‘all in it together’. Again from an earlier post:

‘Equality matters because ultimately, people need dignity and respect, they need the ability to execute their life plan, they need a sense of fairness in all of the rules and institutions and processes of society.’

Before I get down to details, I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about a ‘bolt-on’ to normal patterns of growth. Whilst it is good, for example,  to see a commitment from the Scottish Government to inclusive growth, I think there is a tendency for that commitment to be a series of additional costs added onto normal business as usual, and I think we need to go deeper than that.


The RSA and Inclusive Growth

As I mentioned at the start, the RSA’s Inclusive Growth Commission, which reported recently, has been examining these issues. The Commission’s job was to examine how inclusive growth could be achieved.   It sets out the challenges for the UK (with an admittedly English focus for solutions) very well, including the wide range of disparities in life chances, incomes, economic activity and skills across the regions, the worsening problem of in-work poverty, and the low spend on work programmes and skills that the UK makes compared to its competitors.

This diagram from the report illustrates the problem of in-work poverty:

The report itself is short and punchy and well worth a read, but it’s this key diagram that both informed and summarises a great deal of my own thinking:


In particular, the right hand side of the diagram is worth showing more clearly:

This sort of thinking ties in very well with a raft of traditional liberal policies and I’d like to comment on the ideas the RSA has put forward, before adding a few of my own.

Social Infrastructure Not exactly new thinking in many parts of Europe, but relatively new in the UK. It should be obvious that ‘pure’ economic growth policies are unbalanced if they ignore the needs of citizens. Chadwick and many more in the 19th century knew that. It should be obvious we need to support the human resources that make up the economy, ensure that working people have proper access to childcare, to mental health services and to the right mix of education, training and skills. But often we have assumed the market will provide, without making sure that everyone is included and without recognising that the more we spend on these preventative and facilitating services, the more our economy is likely to flourish. We have rushed into expanding University provision without always thinking through whether University is always the best option. We have shamefully neglected mental health provision, and acted like we mostly think community groups, activism and local pride are irrelevant to local economic dynamism. We too often act as if the loss of community ‘anchors’ such as post offices, pubs, small businesses and community halls is a necessary price of market or public service efficiency when they are clearly the bedrock of ensuring a truly local economy can function.

Thinking About Places and Decentralising Power It should be obvious but a central plan from London or Edinburgh doesn’t cut it today, if it ever did. We are too monochromatic and too centralised, and we lack resilience in our economic systems, our banking, our food provision and our retail offerings. We need to unleash the power of local people, of regional strengths, of previously disempowered and disillusioned people- the RSA is surely right to call for a fundamental reset in central-regional relationships. As the RSA rightly says we need minimum national standards but we must have local flexibility to decide on the best way to deliver those standards- no more massive, complex central plans for local democracy, for local economic functions or for pubic services reform. or at the very least, only when absolutely needed and not just because a new government or a new minister is in charge.

Just Being Smarter Too often the economic and the social policy communities don’t talk to each other. Too often social policy is seen as a cost, and economic policy as a wealth creator, when the reality is they both can be both. Too often grandiose regeneration plans don’t really involve local people, or aren’t tailored to local and regional distinctiveness or need. Too often infrastructure spend is just about large pieces of ‘kit’ with not enough recognition of the possibilities of procuring differently, of kick-starting self-sustaining changes during construction, or of supporting particular disadvantage groups through cleverer use of public (and private) funds. Too often Universities and colleges are not asked to take a more active local role, as large employers, providers of knowledge and skills and as potential community anchors of innovation and solidity in a changing world.

Measuring the Right Set of Things The RSA rightly calls for a much fuller basket of measures to understand and assess economic growth. Again this is not exactly  new (does anyone remember the 1999 sustainable development indicators?? ) but it is great to see- and I’ve reproduced the RSA’s proposed indicators below.


I agree with the RSA that a properly balanced picture of inclusive growth needs to understand much more than just GVA– it needs to try and understand the quality of jobs being created, the skills and training being attained by citizens, the patterns of income and any worrying disparities being created, and measures such as the strength and resilience of local communities, civic groups and local activists.

Finally, its great to see the RSA calling for a much more diverse, local and distinctive approach to banking. The UK is hugely reliant on a small number of large banks- it shouldn’t be, doesn’t have to be, and wasn’t always. Many successful countries, including in Europe, and the US, have much more diversified and locally and regionally focussed financial institutions. I agree with the RSA that diversity and greater decentralisation of the banking system is a key component of a more inclusive agenda. And of course with Blockchain...


What Else Might We Need? 

I think the RSA Commission has done a great job of setting out a chunky set of recommendations for people to consider. It is a report full of ideas, and I’ve certainly not mentioned all of them (for example the report also calls for a move away from the push to get more and more people to University, to a more discriminating approach that gives equal value to vocational education).

But I still don’t think the RSA’s work is the final word. So well else would I argue for? As usual dear reader, my words outrun your patience so let me be mercifully brief.

Firstly, I think we need to continue the path we are now on to increase the living wage, to ensure that work really does pay. We’ve made a start but we need to do much more. And as I argued before, I think there is a good case to go further and examine a Basic Income.

Secondly, we need to take action to cap pay and to set up a body to monitor it and report

Thirdly, we need another look at the opportunities for greater fairness in the tax system, to make sure that the tax system is fair, and is transparently so. Here I’d mention the ideas of the late Tony Atkinson, and ideas floated  in 2013 by the IFS

Fourthly I’d mention the new structure for companies that many are exploring- from social finance and community development companies, through to interesting ideas on the very nature of companies themselves- see here and here and here for example.

Fifthly, I’d mention the worker and community empowerment agenda- from including workers on company boards, to establishing greater incentives for people to establish cooperatives or mutual structures. These are not new ideas- Lloyd George’s Liberals were calling for such solutions in the 1920s and many other reformers have led the way, going back a long way , though I’d argue if anything since the 1990s the UK has gone backwards here. Sadly, we’ve never seriously gotten to grips with the ideas of Jo Grimond writing in the 1950s and 1960s. 


So, there it is- we need a broader, deeper and more thoughtful approach to economic growth. We do need more spending on public services, but we also need a more discriminating approach. In my view, only then can our economic system deliver what it should- freedom and opportunity for everyone. Thanks for reading.



Basic Income Part 2- How Much Would It Cost?

Basic Income Part 2- How Much Would It Cost?

In the first part of this two part post, I discussed what basic income is, why it might be a good idea, and how some of the many objections to it can, I think, be overcome.

In this post, I want to say something on the costs, and what level of Basic Income (BI) might be possible, and some of the implications of that. I also want to pick up a few more points that I should have made first time around.


Firstly, A Confession

I probably should have realised earlier that my plan to comment on and model the costs of a BI in a simple way were not realistic. That’s because  to set realistic BI goals, not only do you need evidence of market and individual responses to the BI level but you need to:

– understand the current benefits and social protection system in some detail
– understand the current tax system in some detail
– understand household/ family patterns of income and expenditure in some detail
– understand work on living wage and minimum income standards
– understand the broader labour market

So in what follows, I have done my best but lack the information (and ability!) to do more than make some very basic points. My own pretty basic spreadsheet is here:

Basic Income Calculations Feb 2017

And that draws heavily from particularly a single report from the IFS that provides an overview of the benefits system. I also get my numbers on the tax side of the discussion from the RSA BI report that I quoted from last time (1).

So, feel free to challenge the numbers but I drew some comfort from arriving in my own simple way at roughly the same numbers as the RSA.


How Much Does the Benefits System Currently Cost and Which Parts Are Relevant to BI?

I draw my numbers for the benefits system costs from the afore mentioned IFS report (2, Table 3.1). It’s worth saying that these numbers are before the full introduction of Universal Credit. I think it makes sense to use these numbers for two reasons:

– the new UC system is still being implemented and numbers for it are hard to come by

– the older system is more familiar to most, and handily splits the types of support needed by type of recipient.

The IFSr report  (2) summarises the current system  here:

(for those whose eyes are struggling, its Table 3.1!)(note that this is far from being all types of social protection expenditure).

Very broadly, including all types of recognised social  tax and benefit spending (but excluding some forms of social protection such as social care), then the costs of the UK benefit system in 2015-16 were roughly £211 billion. With about 64m citizens in the UK, that gives a starting point on average of £3291 if we just divide one number by the other.We could call this a ‘smearing across all’ option.

But as in Part 1, I think it’s clear that we can’t just sweep away all benefits and provide a general sum- people who are sick, disabled and older, and who experience varying housing costs, need to be treated differently.

So, in my basic spreadsheet calcs, I considered two options. Option 1 excludes pensions and housing benefits, removing respectively £98bn and £24bn of spending from the £211 billion sum that could be used for a BI scheme, but also reducing the number of people receiving it from 64m to roughly 51.8m (i.e. excluding pensioners only). Option 2 does the same but also excludes special payments for maternity/paternity, disability, winter fuel payments and free TV licences. Most of those latter items are quite small but the exclusion for disability and sickness is large.

Under these two options, Option 1 allows about £92bn to be used to fund a BI, whereas Option 2 allows only £45bn. Not surprisingly, both options reduce the BI that could be provided from the ‘smear across all’ figure of £3291, to respectively £1772, and £875 per annum.

Keep reading because this is only half the calculation but I think it does highlight a few points:

-there is a big difference between just assuming the entire benefit system spend can go to a BI, and what happens if you then assume some people and recipients will have differentiated needs.

– if we exclude pensions, then a large spend is removed, with quite a large recipient base removed as well (but with spend removal proportionately larger than recipient removal)

– if we start to remove politically popular smaller benefits such as free TV licences, the effect is modest. However accepting that pregnant women and new fathers have different needs seems a no brainer and changes the picture very little, and is also a modest impact so seems to make sense

– However under Option 2 the exclusion of a further £41bn for sick and disabled people makes quite a difference, as I make the assumption that they receive both current payments and the BI. That seems a fair assumption to me, but I lack the data to confirm it.

Clearly, if we stopped here, the BI figure is low and the game ‘looks a bogey’ as they say.


We Need To Include Tax Changes as Well

I confess from here on, and with time constraints, I’ve had to fall back on the numbers quoted in the RSA report ((1), page 25 Table 3).

Table 3: Savings from benefits, tax reliefs and allowances34


Cost (£bn)

Child Benefit and Child Tax Credits


Working age benefits (Income Support, JSA, etc)


Working Tax Credits


Administrative savings and Tax Credits written off


Student grants and loans written off


Personal allowances (income tax)


Primary threshold and self-employed reliefs (NI)


State Retirement Pension, SERPS, S2P, Pension Credit, and MIG


Higher rate tax relief on pension contributions




Note(s): Savings based on 2012-13 rates.

I have simply taken (some of) the tax changes proposed there and assumed they are correct and incorporated them into my ‘model’. These changes are to remove personal allowances entirely, to remove NI reliefs and thresholds, and to remove higher rate tax relief on pension contributions. These provide a handy £107 billion to go towards funding a BI. When that figure is added to my two options (i.e. £107+ either £92bn or £45bn), then the BI rate becomes £3836 under option 1 and £2940 under option 2. In passing I should say I assume a 75% administrative savings at DWP rather than the quite conservative 50% that the RSA use.

Again, there may well be basic errors and distorting assumptions in my simple arithmetic – do let me know if you spot them!

For what it’s worth, UK GDP is around £1900 billion, and current benefits and tax spend is around 11-12% of GDP, or around 30% of total government expenditure. Therefore each 1% of GDP diverted via tax to governance spending raises  around £19 billion.

Current UK expenditure by type is here: (taken from Budget 2016 report (3)

The point of showing this is that I couldn’t see an easy way to raise the BI level substantially- to have a BI of £7000 means there is a ‘gap’ to fill of c£210 billion or 11% of GDP compared to my two options. To create a BI of £12,000 appears to need a further £469 billion or 24% of GDP. I don’t see either of those propositions being realistic, ever. What I mean is that regardless of the need to phase in or generate citizen support, that those levels of GDP allocated to a BI are simply unrealistic, distorting and would surely distract from other needs.

But perhaps I am missing something?

I also lack the data to work out what further changes can be applied to the tax system to create scope for further increases to the BI. No doubt, some will argue that taxes need to go up further and that seems sensible. See for example this from Malcolm Torry on alternative means of creating a BI.

But each 1p income tax rise raises somewhere between £5-10 billion  p.a only, and even to raise the BI by a further £1000 a year would seem to require £50-65 billion-  a very large tax increase indeed. It seems to me, that if such a tax rise were feasible, I’d want to consider a much broader range of things as candidates for the extra cash- including new housing, new low carbon infrastructure, additional health and particularly mental health spending, and education including perhaps free tuition again.

So, I leave my basic calculations on Basic Income here!


The Link To A Decent Standard of Living? 

I realised in the course of these simple sums that I was approaching the problem by considering what could be funded, rather than what was needed. What I also needed to consider is the extent to which a BI at these levels made any difference to living standards or in providing a better safety net. After all, this is one of the claimed benefits for a BI.

In writing this, I drew upon a few reports on the Living Wage, the calculation of the Living Wage and its relationship to the Minimum Income Standard that underpins the Living Wage calculation.

The key table I draw on for reaching conclusions is this one:


In a nutshell, it seems to me that the BI levels I discussed above are very similar to current benefit rates (with the possible exception of sickness and disability benefits being paid on top). Because I exclude pensions, and because I lack the dynamic model to test things, it is hard to conclude other than that the BI at the level above does not significantly impact on a citizens contribution to having a decent standard of living. There are other benefits, but assuming that a  BI allows for a minimum income standard to be met, at a level of £2900-3800 a year, won’t match up with the MIS calculations.
I may be wrong on the contribution to living standards,and others may want to show me why. Nonetheless, it seems to me that a BI of c £3000 would be an excellent thing to have, for the reasons outlined in Part I, but that as I also said in Part I, we need to look to a much wider range of interventions to get us to the basic level of security and dignity that a society based on liberal principles should look for.
Briefly on why exclude pensions? Partly because older people are likely to have higher needs so it makes sense to separate that out. Partly because, intuitively, it makes sense to me to go more slowly, and consider folding in the pensions system in due course. I also think that this element of ‘pay as you go’ contribution works reasonably well, and is accepted, so why change it? With a fair wind, the new Single Tier pension should address a lot of previous pensions anomalies.



Other Issues


As ever, I’ve gone on too long and won’t win any prizes for brevity. But before I sum up, I did want to mention a few other points that perhaps I should have covered in Part I.

One the importance of the pilots, I want to re-emphaise that we really need to understand in some detail, and in a real world way, how people will react to the scheme. To take just one example, the Working Tax Credit (WTC) created a strange incentive whereby marginal benefit losses were much lower if you worked 16 hours rather than 15 hours. Result? Lots of people working 16 hours and not 14 hours a week, regardless of whether that suited them or was socially sensible.

Secondly, and perhaps controversially, is the issue of whether a BI should be limited in some way to only applying to a certain number of children? On the one hand, purists might say ‘absolutely not’ since the whole purpose of a BI is to be unconditional and non-withdrawable. Additionally, if we don’t provide a BI to families with large numbers of children, we risk the future of those children. On the other hand, it seems there would be nothing to stop, under a BI scheme, a family to have 8 children, with no thought to how to manage, and scoop up £25,000 from the state, with no requirement to work for doing so. This is a tricky one and I don’t have the answer. Perhaps, perhaps, the way forward is to limit payments of BI to no more than 3 children?

Thirdly, the BI allows the removal of the current absurd anomaly in the Child Benefit payment system, where a supposedly universal benefit is now means tested. But because of the daftness of our system, those who have a single higher earner in the family but a lower overall income, lose child benefit whereas those two earning split, do not. It is this sort of ridiculous unfairness that a BI can solve.

Fourthly, the more I dig into the UK benefits system, the more detail I find. Things such as passported benefits, Council Tax relief and so on, are also very important but I’ve not seen BI reports considering them, or how they should be treated. Any takers?

Finally, the current benefits system relies on a passporting system- that is, if you are eligible for certain benefits, you are automatically eligible for things such as free dental checks, free eye car, free school means, disabled parking schemes  and so on. More here. These are really important benefits and any BI would have to consider how to minimise administration if they were to be retained separately. Or perhaps they are folded into the BI scheme? I don’t have numbers to hand on the costs of such benefits.




I’ve gone on far too long over two posts so time to summarise. To repeat from Part 1, I think there are clear benefits to a BI

– it gives greater choices and fosters human dignity, especially for those on lower incomes

– it is easier to administer

– there could be substantial admin savings from having a less complex welfare system

– it has potential to promote entrepreneurial citizens’ action

– it provides a much stronger safety net (depending on level of income set)
– it will greatly reduce waste and fraud as it’s very hard to claim fraudulently
– a BI scheme faces the future in terms of automation
– can be phased in

I stand by those claims-but with some caveats. Firstly, it seems to me that it is perfectly feasible to introduce a BI at around £2900-£3800 per annum. Secondly, it seems to me that further changes to the tax system might allow that to be raised a little further.

However, I can’t see a way to generate the very large BI payments that some call for, and I think at these levels it is clear that BI is only one component of an integrated approach to modern, fair work. As I said in Part I, it seems to me

‘… that BI needs to be part of a wider package of fair work which includes things like pay ratios, higher taxes, how we tax wealth and capital, and worker empowerment.’

My work in preparing Part 2 simply confirms that. We need to think more radically about wages, fairness, pay and empowerment in our system of work.

I also think we need to consider a wider range of UK benefits in future designs for a UK BI, such as the passported benefits or Council Tax reduction.

But, overall I am excited about BI schemes, and convinced, that done well, they really can make a difference. Thanks for reading.




(1)  The Royal Society of Arts Creative citizen, creative state: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income 2015

(2) Institute for Fiscal Studies A Survey of the UK Benefits System IFS Briefing Note BN13 2016 Accessed at

(3) HM Treasury Budget 2016 report, accessed at

(4) Centre for Research in Social Policy Loughborough University accessed at


Basic Income Part I- Why Consider It?


Basic Income Part I- Why Consider It? 

‘There shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age’– Thomas Paine 

What Is Basic Income? Is Basic Income a good idea? Is it feasibility? Is it affordable?

There is much talk of the possibilities of setting up a basic income for citizens and I wanted to take the chance to set out my own early thoughts. This is such a large topic that I can’t hope to cover all the bases but I do want to make a contribution. I’ll draw on the already vast literature on this and try and add my own contribution. In this blog, I’ll focus on the what and the why, returning in part two to look more closely at costs and the wider issues a basic income raises.

I am in-principle a supporter of Basic Income, but I recognise that there are practicalities and costs to consider, and that on its own, it is far from a ‘magic bullet’.

It’s worth saying that, although there is a lot of thinking and activity now happening on this, that the idea is not new with support going back in Europe to the civic republicans of Concorcet and Paine (quoted above) but taking a longer view, the first Caliph Abu Bakr (albeit for controlling his newly acquired lands!) introduced some form of basic income.


What Is A Basic Income?

Put simply, a Basic Income (BI) or Citizens Income or guaranteed basic income is a payment by the state to its citizens which is (largely) unconditional and is paid regardless of earnings. The key points are that normally the income is unconditional, with minimal conditions attached, and that it applies to all citizens (with minimal conditions on that too).

I’ll come back to proposals on the correct level in part 2, but a very good report from the RSA (1) proposes a level around £3600 per annum for the UK for example. A recent Swiss referendum, which included a lively campaign with gold coins dumped in  square as above(!), rejected a proposal to introduce a much higher income of around £2,000 per month.

A few seconds spent googling tells us more but I found this note from the RSA and this video to be a useful starting point. You can also find more here and here and here . And even more here .

More substantially I found Malcolm Torry’s ‘Money for Everyone’ book (2) to be very useful.


Why On Earth Would the State Give Free Money Away?



There is plenty of differing arguments about the reasons for a BI but they are generally of three types:

(1) Increasingly the nature of work is changing with evidence of greater anxiety and stress in the lower reaches of the workforce,rising inequality and some evidence of unfair or dehumanising practice. A BI set at a proper level would free up citizens to chose work that they really wanted, as opposed to work that they had to take, particularly for those with lower incomes and who currently have less choices.

Often a related argument is that in a world expected to see a rapid ‘Rise of the Robots’ over the next 30 years, we need to find ways to both protect vulnerable workers from automation, and to prevent a disastrous collapse in demand in the economy as jobs disappear. The argument runs like this: automation and robots are advancing rapidly- up to 50% of all jobs will be threatened; we need to find alternative ways to ensure people have jobs and income not just for their own dignity and self-worth, but because consumer spending is essential to keeping the economy moving so that no jobs= no incomes=no spending=no demand=no investment or production or services and so on.

A further related point is that BI advocates claim that as a society we simply don’t recognise, value or reward unpaid activity sufficiently well. Things such as volunteering, neighbourhood support, caring and a host of others could be freed up to focus on things that benefit society, with those doing such things free by their BI to do more.

Also included in this batch of arguments is that at a time of greater change, insecurity and anxiety, a BI generates a stronger safety net.

(2) Our (UK) welfare system is too complex, too arbitrary  and too harsh. There are ample horror stories about harshness, petty detail  and incompetence in the UK welfare system. Putting aside arguments over political motives and morality, one can argument that for three reasons the current ever increasing complexity of the welfare system is wrong and needs changed

– firstly, the system penalises low income people who face crazy marginal tax rates of 70% plus at certain largely arbitrary income thresholds and this acts as a harsh, unfair and punitive disincentive to take certain types of work

See for example this graph of marginal tax rates from the aforementioned RSA report:


– secondly, the cost of writing the complex rules, enforcing them, checking and waste and fraud is huge and both frustrating and largely without economic value. A BI scheme would be much simpler, more cheaper to administer and virtually eliminate fraud as its unconditionality means its extremely easy to check for compliance and extremely hard to defraud

– thirdly, a BI system would eliminate one type of state overreach- whereas at present bureaucrats are empowered to require very long forms to be filled out asking all kinds of detailed questions about a citizen’s business- their income, who they live with, where and how they work, if they have kids and so on, but a BI eliminates all that (up to a point anyway)

(3) A BI scheme would force companies paying lower wages for boring, repetitive and soulless jobs to compete for workers who would now have real choices if the work does not appeal. Companies may have to pay more, improve conditions or autonomy or simply be nicer to their workers. As a related bonus, it may be that BI encourages entrepreneurship across private, public, third sector and social enterprise as peoples’ creative energies are freed up when their basic needs are covered.


Proponents of BI also point out that a BI scheme could be phased in over time, over place and according to age or type of income scheme.


So, to summarise the stated or proposed benefits of BI:

– it gives greater choices and fosters human dignity, especially for those on lower incomes
– it is easier to administer

– there could be substantial admin savings from having a less complex welfare system

– it has potential to promote entrepreneurial citizens’ action

– it provides a much stronger safety net (depending on level of income set)
–  it will greatly reduce waste and fraud as it’s very hard to claim fraudulently
– a BI scheme faces the future in terms of automation
– can be phased in

Plenty of other people have listed their thoughts on the pros and cons, for example here and here. The Brookings Institute gives its 3 reasons here


Great! Free Cash! Let’s Do It Right? 

Not so fast- not surprisingly given the enormous change in theory and practice that such a policy would require, plenty of people have raised plenty of objections. I may have missed some, but let me list the main objections and then say why I think most are mistaken, some require more evidence, and some are simply turn on your view of humanity itself.

Three of the biggest ones can be summarised like this ‘A BI would be morally corrupting of the will to work, and ruinously expensive, and destroy the freedom and rights of the rich’. Dear reader, I’ll deal with two of those in a moment, and defer the costs issue to Part 2 of this blog.


The Common Objections

Objection 1- It Will Destroy the Impulse to Work

This is a common objection- that providing a BI at any sort of non-trivial level will destroy people’s incentive to work, rendering them work-shy fops lying around boozing and watching TV. Or more seriously, that the nature of humans, or at least poorer humans,  means that absent strong incentives or penalties, people will take the path of least resistance. Or put another way, a BI scheme is unfair as it rewards the workshy and penalises the worker. Or that people need the structure and ‘whip’ provided by a strong welfare state.

Whether you think this is true depends on why you think people work, what makes people tick, and ultimately on your view of humans and their motivation, ethics and psychology. I note in passing the odd thinking that suggests that poorer people need penalties to make them work, but that any penalty at all is considered a disincentive for the rich to work, and that apparently, rich people need incentives to work and poor people need penalties.

For me, I do not think for a moment that there won’t be some people who do indeed chose not to work and laze around. However I am of the view that the vast majority of people want to work and make a contribution, that the BI has the potential to increase work activity by removing penalties and disincentives like the high marginal rates we saw above. I think that a BI would be one of the clearest possible demonstrations that we are indeed, ‘all in this together’ and give people confidence and the ability to try new things, to experiment and to even do unpaid work for a while, confident that no one can take their BI away. I think that BI is an excellent example of the state recognising and valuing the need for people to follow their life plans, and maintain a sense of dignity and equality.

As for fairness, I’m sorry you’ll need to explain to me why providing a BI that allows for a basic level of dignity is unfair, when we currently have a societal system where those born rich live longer, are happier and have more opportunities simply because of their circumstances of birth. I honestly think a BI has the potential to strengthen societal bonds and by creating a more equal society, has the potential to strengthen democracy too.


Objection 2 This Is State Overreach on a Massive Scale, Penalising the Rich for Being Successful 

It’s pretty clear that a BI will cost money if it is to make a difference, and that the rich will have to pay for it. There, I said it.

But in a world where recently, pay for the highest earners and wealth is rocketing along with inequality, then I’m afraid that I think things like  BI are the price of a decent society (you can see my thinking on inequality and on the principles for a liberal society here and here ). So, for the reasons I advanced in my earlier blogs, a BI is a key means of fulfilling the fairness test in society, not a perversion of it.


Objection 3- A BI is An Egregious Example of Dead-Weight Costs- We Need to Target Limited Resources!

This objection is trying to say that normally, our state interventions want to avoid ‘dead-weight’ costs- that is costs and payments for things that would have happened anyway. In other words, why pay rich people a Basic Income when they don’t need it, which is what you have to if the system is to be unconditional?

Actually, this is easily answered- we tilt the tax and benefits system to ensure that richer people pay more tax, and make adjustments so that they don’t see an increase in income overall. Simples.

Objection 4- It’s Just Too Complex to Try 

Actually this objection has some merits- this is a huge change and we would need to proceed with caution. That is why in practice, so many proposals for BI schemes start at a local level and with pilots. We do want to have a rigorous before and after evaluation. We do want to understand what savings can be made administratively, or how local pay rates changed, the impact on business and employment, which differing rates of BI have what impacts, the interactions of BI with the remaining parts of the social protection system, how BI affects the housing market, and most importantly, how people in receipt of BI chose to behave and whether it actually makes a difference.

But these are just reasons to experiment and to pilot, at sufficient scale to draw lessons, not reasons not to do it. The most promising proposals look at a locality,a city or a rural environment, and evidence from all three would be important.

Objection 5- Companies Will Take Advantage and Lower Wages 

There is clearly some risk that left to their own devices, at least some companies who knew that citizens were about to receive a BI would act to (overtly or covertly) lower wages or other benefits as a chance to make a free buck. Now in locations with no minimum wage, that is a serious issue. However in the UK at least, we have a minimum wage, and we simply need to keep an eye on company behaviour and act accordingly. It is clear to me that BI would merely be one part of an overage package of ‘fair and empowering modern work’ – and this is another issue I’ll return to in due course. Meantime, we ask the Low Pay Commission to keep an eye on the issue.


Objection 6- Immigrants Will Take Advantage 

Given our current lively debate on immigration, some people would have a real fear that a generous UK BI, for example, would encourage even more immigration to the UK and that this would be an outrageous burden on good honest UK tax payers.

In reply, we can note that either outside the EU we will be free to control immigration as we see fit. Or, if my preference to remain in the EU ever comes to pass, we can look at ways to ensure that the definition of UK citizen is tight enough to ensure that abuse is minimised. I don’t know what the right level is, but we could for example  introduce a rule into our BI that only those citizens born in the UK or children of those born in the UK are automatically entitled, and that other people would either have to become UK citizens and live here, or have to be working for a defined period first (5 years? 10 years?) to qualify. We can also introduce a rule that ex-patriats are not entitled to the payment. I suspect this could raise some issues should we remain in the EU, but the basic point that this can be fairly easily addressed stands.


Objection 7- A BI Destroys the Link Between Benefits and What Has Been Paid Into the System

I think two replies are possible to this objection. The objection is based on a feeling that, actually, our social protection system should be based on payments that reflect how much people have paid into the system, and personal payments adjusted accordingly. And further, that it is unfair that someone who has not paid in much or anything, should receive the same rights as someone who has spent a lifetime working. And that with falling support for the welfare system, we need to go back to where we started in the 1940s, where welfare was a form of pooled collective insurance, not a means of redistribution.

Up to a point, I am sympathetic to these ideas when we are talking about the standard welfare approach- and the importance of the so-called contributory principle. Policy makers and people are looking for ways to make the system fairer and to reclaim that sense of ownership of welfare that originally made it so popular. But as this article discusses, actually we need to think more creatively about how to give people a stake in the system, and I think BI does that far better than trying to return to the original ideas of Beverage.

It’s also worth noting that a pretty small fraction (less than 15%) of the welfare system now relies on contributions to determine payments.

So, my response is that (a) we need a better means of securing support for the welfare/social protection system and that is exactly what BI gives us and that (b) look the link is already broken so let’s not pretend our current system links contributions and payments very closely anyway.


Objection 8 Some Low Income People Will Lose Out and/or Basic Income is Too Blunt a Tool

A final objection I want to consider is a very real one, which has two parts. Firstly, people worry that those currently in receipt of welfare or other social protection payments will lose out if the BI is set at too low a level.

The second objection is that people are very diverse- with a vast range of ages, needs, circumstances, geography and expectations. On that basis, a BI which starts out with the intent of empowering people and their choices simply ends up straightjacketing them. Or that in order to account for variances in need, the BI would need to be set so low as to make no difference, and with supplements needed, or at a level so high to cover all cases that the costs would be ruinous.

The sorts of things people have in mind are families with kids with some working and some not, or the vast variation in housing costs across the UK, or the varying needs of disabled or sick people, or the needs of carers etc.

This is a serious objection and the reply comes in two parts. Firstly, the transition to a new system from the old will indeed likely create winners and losers and hard cases, and that these will need careful management and transitional arrangements. At one level that is simply the stuff of policy design and government. So, one could say, noted, and move on.

That’s a bit glib though so a second response is to say yes, this is an issue but point to work from the BI network or the RSA looking at exactly those issues and findings ways to manage them. See this table for example:


The second objection is really important and one that shows that, whilst important, BI on its own is not a single answer. I think is is indeed the case that despite being able to remove large swathes of the current welfare system and its accompanying administration, that we would need at least 3 types of additional payments:-

– public pensions would need to remain (though depending on the level of BI even this might not be true over time)

– payments for disabilities or other physical or mental health or special circumstances which mean that life is more costly for some citizens, would need to be retained.

– Housing costs vary so substantially across the country that a standard element for housing built into the BI simply wouldn’t work, so we will continue to need a housing payment system

So, any BI in the short-term would likely need to be accompanied by pensions, special payments for circumstances outwith personal control, and housing. But over time, we may be able to merge BI with pensions. And we should note that special payments are a relatively small proportion of the total social protection system (c17%). And finally, our whole approach to housing needs to change, which may over time render direct housing payments a less important element of the system.

So, this is a good objection and we need to concede that any BI could not replace the entire social protection system, but I’d argue it could do a tremendous amount meantime.


A Word on Conditions 

The aim of BI is to keep conditions as simple as possible. As I mentioned above, we do need to write in some conditions on who qualifies as a citizen, to give us the best chance of securing public support.

I would argue that there is a further opportunity that could be built into BI however. I think there is a clear case to use citizens BI payments as of right, but to add in a responsibility as well. That responsibility would come in the form of a requirement to participate in democracy. In its simplest form, this could be just a requirement to ensure that if you want to receive a BI, you must be on the electoral register. Or slightly more ambitiously, if you want to receive BI you need to vote in at least 80% of all elections over a defined period. I think people would grumble but I think that most would choose to comply, if nothing else for the large incentive! If we did insist on voting as an actual requirement to receive BI, I’d suggest we’d need to add in a need for ‘none of the above’ style options.


To Conclude Part I


To summarise so far. I think BI is a potentially really strong idea with plenty of benefits. I think most of the objections I listed above can be overcome. I accept that we would need to start slowly and carefully with pilots, and move to a fuller system over time once we understand the issues better. I also agreed with those who say that, initially at least, things like pensions, housing and social payments for individual circumstances will need to be retained.

I argue that BI meets my tests for the principles of a liberal society, and that whilst it clearly is a means of distributing income and wealth, it is a necessary one. BI can’t replace all of the welfare system however.

I also feel that BI needs to be part of a wider package of fair work which includes things like pay ratios, higher taxes, how we tax wealth and capital, and worker empowerment. This is a wider debate about the future of work, and for another day.

However, if you have made it this far you’ll have noticed that costs and levels of payment have yet to be covered. I’ll return to that in Part II of this blog piece. Thanks for reading.




(1) The Royal Society of Arts Creative citizen, creative state: The principled and pragmatic case for a Universal Basic Income 2015

(2) Malcolm Torry  Money for Everyone Policy Press ISBN 878-1-44731-125-6

(3) The Royal Society of Arts accessed at–introducing-the-rsa-basic-income-model#comments-section




The Dangerous Business of Being Alive – Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State

The Dangerous Business of Being Alive- Risks, Citizens and the Liberal State 

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale 

Welcome to the latest entry in my attempt to set out some principles for a liberal state, as a series of building blocks for new ideas for liberalism. This time I want to talk about risks, and citizens and the role of the state in a liberal society.

In an earlier post, I tried to set out what I see as the principles underpinning a fair and equal liberal society. In addition to making the case for freedom and equality (principles 1 and 3) I specifically suggested a role, an obligation for the state around managing risks for its citizens:

Principle 8- Society and its government must ensure a fair and effective management of social risks so that risks imposed by society on its citizens, arising from social-technological risks, or failure to act on foreseeable collective risks, are managed and that effective protection systems are in place.

It is this principle and this area of risk and obligations that I want to expand on now.


What Is Risk and What Types of Risk Are There?

The literature on risk is enormous and I have no intention of rehearsing it all here. In general , a risk is an event or choice that has yet to happen but which may happen and has a rough calculus of measurement based on probability times impact. So one risk can be low because although very likely, its impacts are modest. Another risk can be high, because even though its probability is lower, the outcome or impact is extremely serious. Here one might think of the risk of a US housing market crash that was felt to be very low in 2008 but whose consequences were and still are, extremely serious.

In the corporate world, risks are framed around choices that the corporation and its management has, even where the outside environment constrains those choices. However when thinking of citizens, we can quickly see that there will be personal and societal risks that intertwine with the obligations the state owes them.

Personal risks are those that a person freely enters into, having a choice, knowing the consequences and accepting the outcome. Investments, dietary choices, betting, career choices might be examples. Other risks that a citizen faces however, are not freely entered into- an obvious one being ill-health, or a compulsory purchase order on their house by the state.

Another way to think about these two types of risks are as Ronald Dworkin discussed, ‘option bad luck’ and ‘brute bad luck’. Option bad luck corresponds to a risk through choice whereas brute bad luck is trying to capture the idea that despite your best planning as an individual, shit happens.

Yet another way to frame this two-fold typology is based on Thomas Meyer (1), ‘optional risks’ and ‘non-optional risks’ (Meyer p28). Again, optional risks are ones the citizen decides to take to improve their life position, freely entered into and with the acceptance of gains or losses. Non-optional risks are those that happen anyway without the element of individual choice, based perhaps on their physical impediments, societal impositions, ‘acts of god’ or other risks outside their control (including as I will discuss- state choices).

For the moment, I want to focus on risks between the individual, the society they live in, and the role of the state. Clearly, these intra-state risks are not the only type of risks, and risks exist both between states, and between and across generations (sustainability generally and climate change in particular being the obvious examples). But to make things easier, I want to focus on a single state and the relation to its citizens and the obligations the state has.


Ok, What’s Your Point Caller 


My point is quite a simple one. If we believe in a society where all persons are equal, where we need to ensure they have opportunities to follow their life plans, and where some choices and risks are outwith their control, then we immediately create a role for the state to intervene to manage some of those risks. Another way to look at this is in terms of the difference between having theoretical rights and opportunities, and actual ability to follow through to pursuing them.

Let’s now go back to the quote at the state of this post:

‘The greatest risk in life is to risk nothing. The person who risks nothing, does nothing, has nothing, is nothing, and becomes nothing’ Norman Vincent Peale

Such a quote and hundreds more like it, can be found across the literature of positive thinking and urging people on. However I’ve always thought that the thinking behind such suggestions neglects the element of circumstance, of brute bad luck, of ‘shit happens’. Yes with enough luck, willpower and gumption, some people can overcome any adverse circumstances. But what if you come from a  chaotic family? Or through sheer bad luck lose most of your life savings? Or are dogged with poor health, or born with a disability? Or are a victim of shoddy workmanship or downright business deceit? What if sweeping technological change wipes out the industry you work in, or decimates your local community? Are we really to fall back on exhortation?

No, it seems clear that for some risks, the non-optional risks, the state has an obligation to step in and help its citizens. This idea has been accept for a long time, but is particularly relevant in a new age needed for liberalism, a liberalism ‘5.0’.

Let’s be clear what we’re saying: the state has an obligation to act when its citizens face risks that are outwith their reasonable control, where the state itself through collective societal choice made one choice, amongst a range of choices, and that choice had consequences. The state and its citizens collectively has a duty to consider the consequences of its actions or failure to act, and to ensure that suitable systems and support programmes are in place to compensate and support those citizens affected by such choices. And we are talking very broadly- not just the choice to pursue policy A or law B, but the very decision to use a model of capitalism, to allow for private property, to accept certain features of the basic structure of society. Individual citizens facing bad outcomes, non-optional risks, are unlikely to have had the choice to accept some or all of these ‘macro’ choices, and hence are owed a duty to be looked after and supported.

A useful way to consider some of this is to consider Dworkin’s famous ‘insurance market’ (2)


Another Way Of Looking at Risk

Here is a (mercifully briefer) way to look at risks, drawn substantially from Meyer (p29)(1)

  • risks arising from private choices
  • risks including political options (socio-structural)- the state makes decisions (presumably) calculated to promote the common interest by authorising certain economic, social or foreign policies
  • Social-Technological risks-arising from the combined public and private choices about technologies that are made, often in the absence of a proper assessment of their impact on individuals or society (and something Tony Atkinson wished to see addressed)
  • Socio-cultural risks- where no positive actual choice is made, but governments and the state are effectively negligent, failing to take action in the face of foreseeable consequences of government inaction (examples might include unemployment, lack of preparation for automation, systematic discrimination of women or minorities etc.)


Sorry, I’m Still Not Convinced The State Has A Duty or Even a Role

You may be thinking by this point, if you made it this far, ok I can see a role for the state in providing management of risks, but either this is just a minimal level of protection to provide a basic standard of living, or an option to do so- its not a duty.

Sorry- I don’t agree. If you accepted my earlier principles for a liberal society, then it flows pretty clearly from the commitment to treat citizens equally, to respect their need for positive as well as negative liberty, and their right to follow their own life plan with dignity and the ability to see it through, that the state has a duty to act.

Why? Well firstly because if we accept citizens are equal and have rights, then when the state fails to act on the various risks listed above, it is encroaching on its citizens rights.

A second way to think about this is in terms of a social contract. We can imagine a hypothetical contract where, in return for accepting my responsibilities as a citizen and all that flows from that, I have the right to expect to be insured against the worst risks in life, since my social contract prevents me acting outwith the rules and norms of the society I am in. For example, if I am poor and hungry, I am not allowed (theoretically) to steal from the richer and better endowed and I cannot simply take over private land and begin to grow my own food. So, in return, I am owed some level of protection/insurance in return…

One final way to consider the issue is this- it seems clear that no one is morally entitled to take risks that affect third parties, unless the latter have given their express consent. But in managing the social-structural, socio-technical and socio-cultural risks mentioned above, states do this to their citizens all the time. But it is NOT valid to simply sacrifice the few for the good of the many- this would violate any number of clear liberal principles. So, as soon as it is clear that risks are being imposed, it is equally clear that rights for protection/compensation are activated.

So, the citizen has the right to expect protection, and the state has the duty to provide it.

But what does any of these mean in practice?


Types of Collective Risks and Consequences

In very general terms, one might re-cast my 5 ages of liberalism to match the types of risks we are discussing:

Age 1- managing risks arising from lack of religious freedom, arbitrary state or monarchical power and lack of property rights

Age 2- managing risks arising from the growth of capitalism, of pollution and sustainability risks, and lack of political representation

Age 3- managing the social consequences of increasingly collective societal decisions imposed on individuals

Age 4- managing risks associated with life circumstances, industrialisation and post-industrialisation

Age 5- Facing up to today’s risks- immigration, gender inequality, minority rights, accelerated technological change, global environmental degradation, and a realisation that risks exist that flow from the very nature of capitalism and the basic structure of society itself.

So, we are searching for things that the state owes an obligation to its citizens to address, across the full range of socio-structural, socio-technological and socio-cultural risks discussed above.

We are searching for things where the state has made decisions between options, and those decisions have consequences for individuals. We are looking for decisions and risks that violate basic rights, and where something can be done about that. We are excluding on the whole individual decisions where a choice was made and it didn’t work out. We are particularly looking for those risks that, absent substantial wealth and resources, it is difficult for an individual to foresee, to manage via self-help alone, and where reasonable efforts are  or have been already made by the citizen to address the risk.


Practical Examples Please!

In one sense, none of the above is new- states have long accepted the need to provide some form of safety net for their citizens. Since 1945 in the UK, a complex and interlocking set of public services have been established to try and provide social protection and social insurance for citizens.

So, some obvious areas where the state has a duty to manage risk are: providing a fair, effective and comprehensive health service. Providing a decent, free and effective education for all, allowing them to take a full part in society. Providing for people in their old age via pensions, and providing a series of protections and wealth transfers for those affected by unemployment, disability, sickness, and so on- the welfare system.

In addition, a whole range of public regulation exists to protect citizens from the inimical consequences of bad products, lying businesspeople, chicanery, shoddy workmanship, and bad advice. Think of the entire systems of legal protection and regulation that now exist in the UK around environmental protection and environmental health, health and safety at work, public health protection and disease prevention, consumer protection and product rules.

But are these enough? I’d suggest very strongly not, and as we enter the fifth age of liberalism, we need to think again about the duties- NOT the political options- that the state owes us.


New Risks, New State Obligations


I want to finish on a few examples of areas where I feel, going forward, a real liberal state would offer much more than is traditionally accepted as subject to risk management. That’s not to say by not tackling them here, I am agreeing that the UK has a fully effective set of risk management for health, education, welfare and so on. But let me highlight some others:


  • Legal Redress, Protection From Libel and Slander

To play a full part in society, it should be obvious in a capital-led, internet savvy, information rich society, that all citizens need adequate ability to pursue redress for illegal action against them, including slander and libel. At the moment, we seem to be cutting back on provision or relying on private insurance often attached to housing insurance or car insurance. But if we really respected our citizens, we’d be seeing this access to legal resource as a right, not a nice (or depending on your politics, nasty!) thing to have

  • Information Security and Identity Protection

In the modern world, your information can come to define you- and your identity can be stolen. At the moment, the state is too often ignoring these foreseeable risks, too often creating risks itself with casual mismanagement of information, or too grasping of information for worthy but overstated ends. Too often, major private companies like Facebook or Google are left to define what is ok, when the state should be picking up the baton, identifying and managing the risks proactively on behalf of its citizens

  • Full employment and Technological Risks

Too often, full employment is see as a thing that governments hope to achieve, based on political choice and/or philosophy. I mean, we might want it but we can’t buck the market right?

I want to suggest that this is a clear socio-structural risk that all political parties should be striving for, as an accepted duty of government. It was in the past, it should be again. Why? Because economical and social evidence and human psychology and dignity demands it- that all citizens have the opportunity to work and to work in ways that give them creativity, agency and purpose. Related to that, a whole swathe of articles on automation and the rise of the robots (something I’ll come back to) point to an overwhelming need to focus on the future and manage these emerging socio-technological risks for citizens

  • Housing and Place

We have clearly gone off-course in the UK when it comes to housing and place making. Our places are too often designed for people with cars, people with wealth, people for whom choices based on resources exist, or designed for the needs of business. Our sense of public place for democracy and civic forces to play out is just too weak. Our plan making relies on the private sector to come forward with house building and we now have a model where most of our public spending on housing subsidies private rental rather than public house building. Too many younger people face enormous obstacles to get on the housing ladder. Too many more citizens, following the signals they are given, are taking advantage of the rental market to drive up prices and rents as a way of providing for their future, in a literally beggar-thy-neighbour approach. These risks are both socio-structural (arising from a combination of open capital flows to and from the UK, tax laws, the retreat from public house building, and lack of regulation) as well as being socio-technological and socio-cultural (especially the lack of questioning as to what might happen when such choices were made, or if we continue to fail to plan for new housing). We must do better.

I don’t have time and space here, but just as important, and especially in Scotland, is our entire approach to land ownership, common land and common space.

  • Capital and Inequality

In an earlier blog, I ran through the current state of inequality in the world, and why it matters. Following Piketty and others, these socio-structural and socio-cultural risks were, and are, entirely clear and foreseeable. The enormous levels of inequality are bad, foreseeable and preventable, and are a classic example of citizens on their own being unable to either fully foresee the impacts, or fully address them given the macro-economic and financial forces ranged against them. The case for government action, preventative and proactive, to address inequality, could not be clearer.




As usual, I’ve gone on longer than planned during these early foundational pieces. I hope I have convinced you that, based on liberal principles, there is a right for citizens and a duty on states, for risks to be managed. I’ve talked about those risks and their nature, and why they are to be managed.

I’ve finished by hinting at the areas where, going forward, we need more focus on these risks, not as a nice to have, but as a fundamental component of a liberal, fair and effective society. In future, I’ll return to the individual areas and flesh out the details.

But let me finish with a comment to the sceptical. Almost all triumphs of private business turn out to be underpinned by previous public action (on research, on education, on capital or infrastructure support, on limited liability, on tax rules, or the rule of law). Almost all rich people have a tendency to forget what absence of resources looks and feel like, and why being stuck in the system is so hard. Almost all trapped within a system of low resources, bad services and loss of control can sense the system is not geared to support them. Unless we address these risks, proactively and systematically, we will never have the fair and equal society that we want.



(1) Thomas Meyer ‘The Theory of Social Democracy’ Polity ISBN 978-0-7456-4113-3

(2)Ronald Dworkin ‘Sovereign Virtue’ Harvard University Press ISBN 978-0674-008106

Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson

Public Thinking As It Should Be- A Tribute to Tony Atkinson 

“I don’t care who writes a nation’s laws – or crafts its advanced treatises – if I can write its economics textbooks,”Paul Samuelson,Economics: An Introductory Analysis, 1948

This post I want to take a break from the rather abstract thoughts posted so far, to pay my own brief tribute to a wonderful man Tony Atkinson, who died earlier this month. I didn’t know Mr Atkinson in person but by common agreement he was a giant in his chosen field of academic economics, namely the study of inequality and poverty. Other tributes are here and here.

Not only did he shape the field of poverty and inequality studies with his research, his ability to communicate and his ideas, he also led a series of institutions and approaches that, with for example Thomas Piketty, now shape our discussions of these issues. And he cared about and wanted to solve the issue of poverty, not just research it.

Towards the end of his long career, Mr Atkinson published a work on Inequality that I would highly recommend- ‘Inequality- What Can Be Done?’(1)

The book is not only an excellent primer in how inequality is actually measured, but also how it has changed over the last 50 years, in the UK but in other countries. Most of interest may be the solutions that are offered, born of a life-times thinking about the issues.

You can see him speaking about these ideas here and here 


What Did He Call For? 

I won’t comment on these proposals, other than to say this- if we are serious about inequality then these sorts of ideas are what we must debate, and work out how to progress. I would also say they fit very well with the principles I was writing about earlier and that such strong action is justified given the inimical effects of inequality.


The 15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s ‘Inequality – What can be done?’

Proposal 1: The direction of technological change should be an explicit concern of policy-makers, encouraging innovation in a form that increases the employability of workers and emphasises the human dimension of service provision.

Proposal 2: Public policy should aim at a proper balance of power among stakeholders, and to this end should

  • (a) introduce an explicitly distributional dimension into competition policy;
  • (b) ensure a legal framework that allows trade unions to represent workers on level terms; and
  • (c) establish, where it does not already exist, a Social and Economic Council involving the social partners and other nongovernmental bodies.

Proposal 3: The government should adopt an explicit target for preventing and reducing unemployment and underpin this ambition by offering guaranteed public employment at the minimum wage to those who seek it.

Proposal 4: There should be a national pay policy, consisting of two elements: a statutory minimum wage set at a living wage, and a code of practice for pay above the minimum, agreed as part of a “national conversation” involving the Social and Economic Council.

Proposal 5: The government should offer via national savings bonds a guaranteed positive real rate of interest on savings, with a maximum holding per person.

Proposal 6: There should be a capital endowment (minimum inheritance) paid to all at adulthood.

Proposal 7: A public Investment Authority should be created, operating a sovereign wealth fund with the aim of building up the net worth of the state by holding investments in companies and in property.

Proposal 8: We should return to a more progressive rate structure for the personal income tax, with marginal rates of tax increasing by ranges of taxable income, up to a top rate of 65 per cent, accompanied by a broadening of the tax base.

Proposal 9: The government should introduce into the personal income tax an Earned Income Discount, limited to the first band of earnings.

Proposal 10: Receipts of inheritance and gifts inter vivos should be taxed under a progressive lifetime capital receipts tax.

Proposal 11: There should be a proportional, or progressive, property tax based on up-to-date property assessments.

Proposal 12: Child Benefit should be paid for all children at a substantial rate and should be taxed as income.

Proposal 13: A participation income should be introduced at a national level, complementing existing social protection, with the prospect of an EU-wide child basic income.

Proposal 14 (alternative to 13): There should be a renewal of social insurance, raising the level of benefits and extending their coverage.

Proposal 15: Rich countries should raise their target for Official Development Assistance to 1 per cent of Gross National Income.