On the one hand, the merits of a guaranteed income for all seem clear:
- It would be simple to administer, which should appeal to governments wanting to cut "wasteful" public spending.
- In giving an unconditional income to all, workers would be able to take on insecure jobs, training, internships or zero-hours jobs without fear of losing their benefits. In this sense, A BI underpins the flexible labour market.
- A BI could free people to do voluntary work, thus helping to promote the "Big Society."
- In replacing tax credits, A BI could well be associated with lower marginal withdrawal rates (pdf) than at present. This could increase work incentives.
It's not obviously because it's unaffordable. I reckon a BI of around £130 per week - £20 more than the basic state pension and almost twice the JSA rate - could be paid for by scrapping current spending on social security and tax credits and by abolishing some of the many tax allowances (pdf), the most important being the £62.5bn cost of the personal allowance.
Instead, it's because A BI breaks with a fundamental principle of the welfare state. This, wrote Beveridge in 1942, is "to make and keep men fit for service.*" One function of the welfare state is to ensure that capital gets a big supply of labour, by making eligibity for unemployment benefit conditional upon seeking work. BI, however, breaks this principle.In its pure form, it allows folk to laze on the beach all day.
For many of us - including Philippe van Parijs who first alerted me to the merits of BI - this is not a bug but a feature. Jobs are scarce, so it's better for workers if some are subsidized not to seek them, leaving more opportunities for those who do want to work.
However, this is certainly not in the interests of capitalists, who want a large labour supply - a desire which is buttressed by the morality of reciprocal altruism and the work ethic. It is the fear that a BI would lead to mass skiving that keeps it off the political agenda.
Is such a fear justified? I don't know. Empirically, it's ambiguous, as a BI would - as I've said - in some ways improve work incentives. For capitalists, though, it is a risky prospect.
My suspicion is that a full BI is, for this reason, incompatible with capitalism. Yes, it might well be efficient in many ways. But capitalism is about maximizing profits, not utility.
* I can't find the full text of the Beveridge report online. The quote is on p170 of the version I read ages ago.