Author: Simon Duffy
On the 18th January 2022 I had the chance to debate the case for UBI with Anna Coote, a leading advocate of Universal Basic Services (UBS) and critic of Universal Basic Income (Duffy, 2018a). It was a curious and fiery debate and you can watch it here.
Here are my slides:
It may also be interesting to know a little of the background to this debate. Café Economique, our hosts, had asked me to make the case for UBI (Universal Basic Income) and had looked very hard to find someone from a Right-wing think tank to come and debate the issue with me. However nobody was willing to do so. Instead Anna Coote of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) agreed to offer her critique of UBI, largely in the form of a defence of a policy package that combines means-tested benefits (with an Minimum Income Guarantee) and public services (which she calls Universal Basic Services). Her presentation did not focus on the arguments against UBI; instead these played out in the lively question time session that followed.
Going first I emphasised my own sense of why UBI was important; but I also tried to explain why UBI is only one important thing we need. For example, UBI is not an alternative to, nor a threat to, universal free healthcare, which addresses our need for the distribution of medicines and professional expertise. UBI addresses the very different problem of poverty and income inequality, (although this problem also causes severe health problems). Putting it crudely, it doesn’t make sense to give everyone a regular supply of medicine, but it does make sense to give everyone a regular supply of money (as long as you also use taxes to take away excess money from those who have too much).
UBI cannot do the work of the NHS. The NHS cannot do the work of UBI. We need both.
It is my view that there is no sense in trying to choose between income and services. The internal logic of different public goods differs and justice demands different kinds of solutions depending on the nature of the particular public good. In fact it is rather simplistic to try and break everything into the two categories of ‘service’ or ‘income’, particularly as the word ‘service’ is too vague. For example, let’s consider what are sometimes called ‘social services’. In my opinion:
Of course not all of this is uncontested and most social services are not organised in the way I’ve outlined. However we have made significant progress over the last 50 years to move in the direction I’ve described and the great leaders of this movement are disabled people, families and others who have lived experience of social services. And this is another reason why we must me careful in advocating for services, for services are often highly problematic. Some are good, some are not so good. In the case of social services it is important to acknowledge that these services were not designed from scratch to benefit ordinary people. Instead these services have emerged from the legacy of the workhouse, the asylum and the Poor Law and they have often been shaped by the priorities of professional power, privatisation and organisational self-interest. Today most social service system still promote institutional rather than community solutions. What progress we’ve made has been in the face of significant institutional resistance.
Services are not inevitably good - everything depends upon their content, structure and underlying values.
The second general point I made was that the health of all these welfare systems is dependent upon the health of our democracy. In a well founded democracy, with good laws, a strong and democratic constitution, genuinely independent media, vibrant civil society, democratically accountable public services and power devolved to the most appropriate level we have the best chance to both defend and improve our welfare state. But if democratic structures are weak then the welfare system will start to suffer. The UK provides a dismal case study in the interrelationship of democracy and the welfare state. There are many examples of severe crisis and corruption, but I will limit myself to three:
In the UK these problems are severe and they are worsening. The fact that things are getting progressively worse reflects the undemocratic nature of the UK. There is no accountability for these failings in human rights and justice. No protection from the law, civil society or democratic system. The media rarely talks about poverty, disability and migration and when it does it tends to exacerbate current injustices. The welfare state is no longer safe and we will need democratic reforms - on many different levels - if we are to safeguard it (Barker, 2017).
However I think this is also one of the clear points of disagreement between me and Anna Coote. I think that we both value the welfare state; but she believes the best way to protect it is to convert as much of it as possible into blocks of services that will be harder to harm than income streams. This argument applies the logic of Odysseus and the Sirens:
This is an elegant argument; the problem is that both of its premises are false.
Child Benefit, State Pensions and all the other forms of income security, that ordinary people have fought for over the last hundred and fifty years, do not drive individualism or consumerism. The people who waste resources, damage the planet, pay for advertising, own newspapers and generally undermine the human spirit are the rich. Income security is good for us and our well being, insecurity is dangerous and at its worst it drives people, out of desperation, towards Fascism (Standing, 2011).
Nor are services inevitably better protected than incomes. Again, the UK provides a perfect counter-example. In 2010 the Coalition government unleashed the most severe attack on the welfare state, since its creation. The three things that have been (relatively) well protected are the state pension, schools and the NHS. The things that have been most severely attacked are the services managed by local government (community, youth and social services) and benefits for working age adults, including disability benefits (Duffy, 2013).
It is clear from the UK that services do not trump incomes; rather it is clear that the the universal trumps the means-tested. It is those services that are recognised as universal rights that politicians fear to attack, not services in general. So, if we were wise, we would look to create the right balance of universal services and universal systems of income security. There are many important needs in life that are best met by giving people enough money and allowing people to purchase the mixture of goods and services that works best for them. But we also need excellent services - organised in the right way and democratically accountable to us - to provide things that need to be organised collectively.
It does not seem hard to reconcile Universal Basic Income and Universal (Basic) Services. So why all the fuss?
At this point my argument is based on a guess. But I do ask myself why the strong case for universal services (many of which we already have in the UK) has now become an argument for ‘Universal Basic Services’. I certainly do not want ‘basic’ healthcare or ‘basic’ education. I want excellent education and excellent healthcare. So why dream up UBS as some kind of UBI doppelgänger? My suspicion is that this move does not come from any serious belief that the NHS is better conceptualised as a Basic Service (BS); rather the advocates of UBS simply want to create a phoney sense of tension between services and income in order to undermine support for UBI.
This is reflected in Anna Coote’s strange argument that we cannot afford both UBS and UBI. This is such a peculiar argument for any progressive to make. UBI is not public spending. UBI (combined with the necessary taxes) is an income transfer from the rich to the poor. It is redistribution; it doesn’t involve any public spending at all. You can just as easily afford the NHS after redistribution as before redistribution, because you have not yet spent any money at all. You have simply shifted money from the rich to the poor. The same amount of money is still available. It is an inherently progressive policy, not only creating economic security for all, but also reducing income inequality significantly.
If there is any difficulty it is not economic it is political. In a society, like the UK, which has a high level of inequality then this means there is a small number of people who control most of the money. If those people want to hang on to what they tell themselves is ‘their money’ rather than to see money distributed fairly then they will do all the things that we see in the UK today:
And so on…
It is certainly reasonable for Anna Coote to argue that achieving progressive policies in the UK is difficult, given the regressive forces currently in play. But that is not an economic argument; it is just an admission of weakness.
The strangeness of this affordability argument is even more apparent if we follow through its essential logic. If we can only afford Basic Services by using means-testing to ration benefits then why stop with Universal Credit, Employment & Support Allowance and other means-tested benefits? Does Anna Coote also want to means-test Personal Independent Payments, the State Pension or Child Benefit? I don’t think she does; but why not? If means-testing people on low incomes is good because it enable us to fund more services then why restrict that means-testing to people of working age?
This again reinforces the problem of deploying such a wide ranging concept as ‘services’ without defining what we really mean and what the proper cost and organisation of these services should be. For example, if the NHS simply pays top doctors and managers more money then we are not investing more in healthcare, we are simply increasing income inequality and inefficiency. Whereas if we create a UBI we will be improving health and reducing pressure on some parts of the NHS. We need to be much clearer about what good public spending looks like and much more aware of the inter-relationship between incomes, inequalities and services. Details matter.
I think it is clear that we can afford UBI, although certainly introducing UBI will mean making changes to our tax and benefit system that the richest 15% may dislike if they are only operating from selfish motives. But politically one of the great benefits of UBI is that it actually benefits most people and that it hugely benefits the worst off, who are very poor indeed. This is no threat to public services and in fact would simply make it easier for public services to do their job well. For examples, schools could focus on teaching, rather than fighting poverty and malnutrition.
So, given all of this, why are important and well respected progressive thinkers like Anna Coote so opposed to UBI? Certainly she cares deeply. Her last statement of the debate was very emotional, making a direct personal attack on me to which I had no chance to respond:
“You’re somebody who says you are in favour of regular public services and yet every time you mention them you talk about elites and bureaucrats and people bossing you about. It’s really quite scary. And so I think that you’ve really made my point that the leading advocates of UBI (and I have to assume you are one of them) want to get rid of public services and the welfare state and you want to leave it to everybody to have so called ‘freedom’ so they can do what they like.”
Now I do not know Anna Coote and she does not know me. What is clear is that she finds it impossible to believe that someone could support the welfare state, but also be critical of the welfare state in the way that I am. At a personal level I want to respond to this attack by observing that I love the welfare state. This is something I’ve articulated many times before, and I see no contradiction between loving the welfare state and wanting it to be the best that it can be. In fact I think that this is what love means.
But at a deeper level I think this personal criticism is more a mutual misunderstanding that reflects different visions of the purpose of the welfare state and what is the best guarantee of its success.
The UK welfare state has two roots: one longer, but now less visible, the other shorter, but much more dominant. The first root of the welfare state was the effort by ordinary people, like the Rochdale Pioneers in 1844, to create systems of mutual support, healthcare and public services in our communities. These in turn evolved into forms of municipal socialism where towns and cities established public services for the benefit of all, under local democratic control. However the second root, was the effort to establish nationalised systems, largely controlled from London and designed by people like William Beveridge, George Bernard Shaw and Beatrice Webb. In the end the UK’s welfare state chose to largely eliminate the community and local versions of welfare provision and to replace them with national systems. The UK’s welfare system is now largely the legacy of the Fabians, the Bloomsbury Group, and the London School of Economics.
There are of course many benefits that come from good national systems. But we have not paid so much attention to the many problems created and the darker legacy that these thinkers have left behind. What strikes me is that many of the leading advocates of the national welfare state were also eugenicists and that they had a contemptuous attitude to the skills and capacities of ordinary people. This is particularly hard to bear when it was ordinary people who first created the welfare systems that these figures are now given the credit for. Personally I think we need to free ourselves from this kind of thinking.
We common people, are quite capable of leading our lives, managing our communities and running our democracy. However it is very hard to do this without a decent level of economic security and freedom. We need enough time to be able to contribute to the democratic life of the community and we also need to be free from control, sanctions and management by the state or by the wealthy. The battle for UBI is largely a battle to create the economic conditions necessary for active citizenship and true democracy.
Democracy needs UBI, just as UBI needs democracy.
The challenge of the twentieth-first century is to start thinking and acting like citizens. We need to see the welfare state as a function of our citizenship. It should be designed to support citizenship for all of us and we should take seriously our responsibility to protect, develop and improve it. Citizenship, not centralised power, is what sustains justice; and as we have seen in the UK, centralised power is highly corruptible and incompetent if it is not held to account by citizens.
Finally I want to end with some reflections on how the UBI community should react to the argument to UBS. To begin with I think we must consider the likelihood that UBS - as its name suggests - is not really an argument for anything in particular, it is simply an argument against UBI. As it stands UBS seems to be infinitely expandable, vague in definition, and always too expensive to allow us to move to a system where we can stop super-taxing the poorest (ie. UBI). This doesn’t make logical sense and arguing against it is like boxing your shadow - tiring, you never win and if you’re not careful you end up looking a fool.
The Socialist Medical Association, when it imagined the National Health Service as a system for organising the UK’s healthcare system in the 1920s was reflecting on the best way to organise healthcare, not suggesting that the NHS was the best model for organising all human existence. Good things have their limits, their proper role and there is an optimal (neither too much, nor too little) level of funding. We need excellent (not basic) public services and we should commit some part of our energy into building and sustaining such services. Advocates of UBI should make this clear, although I am not sure we should descend to the use of the UBS acronym.
Moreover we should also agree with advocates of UBS that there is, and will continue to be, an open question about what parts of life should properly be provided, wholly or in part, by public services. How we should answer this question depends not just on our values, but also on our imaginations, and how we should react to evolving technologies and markets. For instance, I would argue strongly for a public pharmaceutical industry. This is partly to control costs, but much more to open up patents for global health improvements and to restrict the tendency of the current system to push inappropriate medicines onto the general population. This is an argument for another time; but the key point is that such arguments need to be specific. Currently advocates of UBS don’t seem to be suggesting that we nationalise the production of food, clothing, leisure, the arts, books and everything that we need money for. Nor are they suggesting that people who work in public services will do so for free - presumably there will still be salaries. So the question of how we secure personal incomes will remain, whatever services we also want.
When it comes to energy and travel we also need a radically different approach - but I severely doubt that we are ready for the provision of free energy and free travel given the enormous carbon costs of energy and travel. Rather we need to tax the excessive use of all these carbon-heavy resources more severely as part of our strategy to live sustainably and in harmony with the planet. We need to both renationalise energy production and work with citizens to expand sustainable energy production and better insulation. Again, there are a range of solutions necessary and the details are important.
As an advocate of UBI I can certainly assert that I also support UBS. But personally I’d be like to be much clearer about what kinds of things are inside the BS basket. When UBS is deployed against UBI I think the central point we should make is to remind people that services are what we send our money on whereas UBI is how we redistribute the money beforehand. There is no deep conflict between these two approaches.
The challenge for advocates of UBI is that criticism from respected progressive figures like Anna Coote are personally painful. Although she portrays us as crazed libertarians, desperate to bring down the welfare state, the reality is quite the opposite. In fact all the people I know who support UBI also support the welfare state and many of them are also active in campaigning for better public services, common ownership and new initiatives, like free local bus service. There is not only no theoretical conflict between UBI and good public services but many of us are busy making the case for both. It hurts to be misunderstood and it is tempting to be drawn into battle simply to ‘clear our names’ from a criticism that is so patently unfair and untrue. But perhaps we should just hold firm and recognise that the strong emotions and strong language on other side of the argument are rooted in their own fears, misunderstandings and intellectual weakness.
What I find exciting about UBI, in addition to the obvious importance and justice of our goal (economic security for all), is the way in which we are building a global movement though direct citizen action at many different levels. For instance my colleagues in the UBI Lab Network are now leading campaigns that extend from Sheffield to Jakarta, from Cardiff to Buenos Aires.
We work cooperatively, in partnership with Citizen Network, and we are not beholden to corporations, governments or any vested interests. This is citizen action and it is action directed to help everyone to become a free and cooperative citizen. In time I hope Anna Coote, or her colleagues at NEF, will start to understand that they have nothing to fear from these changes. UBI will liberate us to act, participate and defend the structures of democracy - structures which include the welfare state itself.
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The publisher is Citizen Network Research. Problems with Universal Basic Services © Simon Duffy 2022.