Paul writes a splendid defence of universal benefits this morning. You can find this post over at his blog at the moment. It’s clear from the shape he gives to the subject that it’s really rather a no-brainer for those in favour of a smaller state. As he argues:
[...] A simpler, more direct and universal benefits system should appeal not only to those on the left but to those who believe in a ‘smaller’ state – it doesn’t require such huge state machinery, such massive bureaucracy and such complication. It does go against the grain in some ways – we like to believe that being more ‘targeted’ means being more efficient, and we’ve followed that mantra for many years, largely despite the evidence against it that’s all too clear for anyone who’s tried to work their way through the systems. Now, it seems to me, is a time that we can try to think in different ways about these issues. Think more radically. Universal benefits is one of those ways.
Mind you, those who remain in favour of “targeting” the deserving versus the undeserving find it just as impossible to go down a route that would clearly benefit their ideologies long-term.
I’m inclined, myself, to want to go even further. I’d like to see us adopt the concept of a citizen’s income. Pete does a beautiful exposition of the whys and wherefores of the subject in question here, coming to the following radical conclusion (the bold is mine):
Our society has moved from being dependent on unskilled manual labour (which was adequately motivated by threat) through to more skilled manual labour (which can be adequately motivated by the promise of money) and is now entering a time where we are more depending on mental labour – which cannot be motivated by threat and can only be only poorly motivated by money. Yet, our leaders still use both to try and squeeze more and more productivity out of us.
Why then, is there the dual insistence that some people, normally rich, will only be productive in return for extensive financial reward and others, normally poor, will only be productive when faced with some form of threat? We understand where our most productive activity comes from, and we also understand that productivity there is not very well motivated by promises of wealth or threats of poverty. So is now the time to, perhaps against many people’s intuition, start removing the link between work and having enough money to live on?
And for once, in a New-Labour triangulating kind of way, I’m looking to gain a broader acceptance for such radicalism. Any changes such as seriously universal benefits for absolutely everyone – which in essence is what a citizen’s income would seriously constitute – would require the complicity of the rich. As I argued a few months ago, the tax system we currently have surely only exists because the well-to-do – those who have the biggest voices in society – are fairly content with the current outcomes (despite all their wailing). So how could we convince them to jump ship and take wholeheartedly onboard this logical extension of universal benefits as described above: that is to say, the aforementioned citizen’s income?
How about this idea which I drag out of the treasure chest of ancient 21st Century Fix trains-of-thought? This one runs thus:
For some mad reason, it provoked the following train of thought in my fevered Saturday brain. What if we paid for everything according to our tax code? In an entirely – or almost entirely – cashless society, tax code information could quite easily be added to our credit and debit card chips. In such a way, we could eliminate all kinds of income tax and use the tax code – instead – to determine how much we paid at point-of-sale. Big spenders and big earners would pay more for everything – those with less would pay correspondingly far less. The scale would be incremental rather than banded. Poverty traps could be eliminated at a stroke. We wouldn’t have to calculate VAT or chase its evasion or pay out tax credits or even child benefit.
An income-tax free state which allowed for properly dimensioned public services and strove to reduce the difference between the very richest and the very poorest? Surely a Nirvana of some kind …
As a result of varying the price at point-of-purchase (a concept which, incidentally, the discounts you get for buying in bulk already contemplates) instead of varying the income you are left with at the end of year, we could suggest not only to the rich but – actually – to absolutely everyone that anything and everything they ever earned would remain in their pockets until a purchase was required.
Yes. It would only work effectively in a state where every purchase was tracked – but isn’t that where we’re heading for anyway? If the cashless electronic state of total state and information awareness is going to be our future in any case, why not make it work on our behalf as we properly break the already disintegrating connection between the motivation of money and the motivation of mental labour?
Don’t pay you for what you do. Pay you, instead, for what you are: a human being, as valuable as the next; with so many things to offer society. And in the meantime, allow the alpha men and women to keep a hundred percent of what they prefer to value.
Some final caveats:
- We’d have to, of course, base the tax code on access to wealth rather than ownership. Too many rich people would soon work out ways of getting around any definition based on the latter.
- I can imagine a flourishing industry in reselling growing up: less well-off people might become professional shoppers for the better-off, so buying at lower prices than the latter should be paying. On the other hand, this would create business opportunities – not necessarily a bad thing in such times.
- We’d have to be pretty clear that hacking of such cashless systems – and at the very least, revolving-door mediation – to adjust tax codes would be an ongoing issue. I have no answer to this one.
As you can see, a few thoughts to be getting on with on the table. And as I mentioned to Paul Bernal on Twitter this morning, some of the above are clearly heretical. But hasn’t the situation become sufficiently complex and problematic for heresy to be almost a requirement?
Isn’t it time we began considering how we might turn the systems constructively upside down?