Mark Pack has written about his thoughts on whether Basic Income (or Citizen’s Income, as it was called when it was party policy in the 90s) should be Liberal Democrat policy again. He’s going off the idea of it, because he thinks you can achieve the same aims in welfare terms with modifications to Universal Credit, but I think he’s missing the wider implications of basic income and why I, and others, think it is the best option for creating a liberal society.
The principal problem with Mark’s approach is that he’s looking at basic income mainly as a welfare issue and how it would compare to the current system. For me, that misses the point about basic income: it’s not about making tweaks to the current system, but instead about proposing a completely new way of looking at issues of how we use the state to support and empower individuals. Part of this, I believe, comes from the way ‘welfare’ has replaced ‘social security’ over the last couple of decades, with all the connotations of it being handouts to the poor rather than providing a necessary security for everyone in society. To treat basic income as merely a ‘welfare’ policy is to miss the wider point of it.
Liberalism, for me, is about providing everyone with the opportunity and the power to live their lives to the full and a liberal state exists not just to protect people from the harm caused by others but to be proactive, distribute power and enable opportunity. A universal basic income, where society through the state provides a minimum standard of living to everyone without qualification, is the logical progression of other universal provision (such as education and healthcare) that was once seen as utterly utopian but is now widely accepted. A basic income is an inherently liberal idea because it creates opportunity for everyone by reducing risk. It gives people the ability to take entrepreneurial and creative risks because they know that the system is there to support them if they fail and give them the opportunity to try again.
One of the important questions we need to face is whether the vision we put forward of a liberal society is something that’s just a few tweaks away from what we have now, or something much more radical and different. The problem with the tweaking approach is that it ignores the widespread changes we’re going through with the advent of mass automation. (See, for instance, Scott Santens on the wider effects of self-driving trucks) Committing to widespread basic income coupled with other traditionally liberal ideas for redistributing power like Land Value Tax gives us the ability to set out an optimistic vision of a liberal future where automation is a good thing because it frees us from drudgery and gives all of us the opportunity to do more with our lives than merely toil away at work.
Basic income may not seem attractive when considered purely as a solution to ‘welfare’ issues, but it is so much more than that. We need to promote it not just as a policy idea amidst everything else remaining the same, but as part of a wider liberal reimagining of society. It’s a radical proposal to achieve liberal ends in the vein of Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge, and it won’t be something easily argued for or conceded by those who would see their own power drastically reduced by it. Formulating and explaining a fully liberal vision for the future isn’t going to be an easy task, but basic income needs to be seen as part of a set of policies that will bring radical change, not just as another way of keeping things close to what they are now.
(And if you want to do more, there’s the Liberal Democrats for Basic Income group on Facebook)