Unconditional benefits: now is the time to smash that “cosy consensus”

Nick Clegg, upon his election as Lib Dem leader, said that he wanted to break what he called the "cosy consensus" between Labour and the Tories that has impoverished Britain's political discourse. With Labour now nicking policies on welfare from the Tories, and both vying to be "tough on the work-shy", now is surely the time to offer a radical alternative.

It is not just their approach to benefits that is backwards in vision, but the whole assumption that "full employment" is the thing we should be aiming for. Such a policy actually highlights even more starkly the difference between being independently wealthy on the one hand and having to work for the basics of life on the other. In an era in which more and more of our tasks can be automated or even exported we should be aiming more to live off the financial assets that past productivity has created.

Liberals have, for a century, harboured the secrets of changing all that. Shamefully, over the past quarter of a century we have dropped every one of those secrets from our policy platform, presumably so we could compete in that "cosy consensus". We are only just on the cusp of really rediscovering the oldest of these…

Three key policies in particular would end this cycle of dependency once and for all. A bold claim for sure, but why not? We have gone through sixty years of the welfare state and are still arguing about the outcomes of welfare, health, housing and education, just as Beveridge was trying to address in his report.

The Single Tax – the one policy we are slowly re-engaging with. Though we seem to be stuck on the idea that LVT is simply an alternative tax, we need to get beyond that and understand that it goes to the very core of our relationship with the planet. Land, economic land that is, "everything in the material universe not created by the application of labour and capital" (so basically the things of nature that we all have to share between the 6bn of us born here), is the third factor of production. David Ricardo pointed out nearly two hundred years ago now that land, especially where it is a monopoly, such as with a physical location or site in the built environment or, say, a section of EM Spectrum that can only be used by one wireless operator at a time, tends to absorb the surplus value created by the labour and capital expended around it that makes it a popular location. Ground rent is created where there is more than one potential occupier that could make good, productive use of a site. It creates a massive transfer of wealth from those who don't own a popular site to those who do, through no effort on the part of the owner of that site.

As a non-land example, the UK government has auctioned off the part of the EM spectrum that carries the new WiMax wireless network signals to a single enterprise, Freedom4 for the whole of the UK. They now hold a monopoly on something that is a gift of nature that anyone else wanting to develop WiMAX networks have to use. They can therefore charge more or less what they like for licenses to others to use that part of the spectrum whilst doing precisely nothing to develop the services that would run on it.

Creating so called "free land" by capturing the value of these natural assets for the common wealth rather than having to tax economically beneficial processes like work and trade is absolutely essential to achieve equity. And the best time to do it would be the bottom of a property cycle. Hint. Hint!!

Citizen's Income – this is the real challenge to the "cosy consensus" that has emerged in the past few days on welfare. It was, I believe, Lib Dem policy up until around 1991. At the top of the recent property cycle there would have been enough land tax (on residential locations alone, setting aside what might be available through commercial, industrial, central business disrict or agricultural locations, airspace, EM spectrum or other forms of economic land) available to pay a citizen's income of about £100 per week per adult and a proportion of that for children depending on age. Further reforms, for example on seignorage – the extraordinary "profit" that creating money as debt gives to the banks that is rightfully part of the common wealth (since the money they "create" is denominated in our national currency) – would enable us to pay for the current health or education budgets if we wanted to, or to add around another £1,000 to the adult Citizen's Income.

People seem to have a problem with the idea of giving everyone an unconditional and non-withdrawable payment like a Citizen's Income because, they say, it will entrench the work-shy in their bad habits, maybe even create more of them. But let's face it, if Joseph Rowntree's lot reckons you need £13,400 to live a basic but comfortable life in the UK, less than half that is hardly going to be comfortable. And it's not meant to be comfortable. It is meant to be hard enough to persuade anyone who wants anything more than the basics of life to do something to earn some additional money. Minimum wage would be scrapped so people would be free to choose to accept a job for whatever they like – just to be able to top up their citizen's income to whatever level they want, but crucially, it would not be withdrawn when people start earning, so there is every incentive for all that nearly ten per cent of the population trapped on various benefit systems to work, even if only a little.

Yes, in the light of campaigns by the tabloids against "benefits scroungers" and the "something for nothing culture" it will be a difficult alternative to sell, but we should be prepared to do it. Think of it the other way around – if we all contribute to the value of locations by our activities around them, why should the dividend from that only go to those who can't work, say? Why not to all of us. It creates a cushion to fall back on in hard times and the ability, even if only for a short while, to be more choosy about the work we accept. No longer do we have to accept the lowest job just to survive. Instead of only the very wealthy gaining financial independence by privatising the collection of land rents, everyone gains a measure of financial security from the common wealth we all contribute to creating.

You could then say that any additional "benefits" must be provided locally, through locally raised taxes and much more accountably than at present. The "parish rate" would have to be used to provide say a basic education for those who were not earning anything more than their Citizen's Income and A&E type health services. But remember, much of the illness in society is because of the sort of poverty that both the Single Tax and the Citizen's Income would eradicate. And not having to pay several taxes on incomes – employers' and employees' NI, income and capital gains taxes – would enable more people to save more of their incomes in productive financial assets for their old age reducing the reliance on a crumbling state pensions system. And, apart from say the armed forces, the troughs at Westminster could be emptied and everyone sent home (and James Purnell would have to find a real job, or discover how life is on the dole perhaps!)

Ownership for All – this third plank of Liberal "redistributive" policy came to the fore in the middle decades of the twentieth century, this is crucial to creating more financial independence for more people. I'm not talking about the sort of free for all sale of state companies as in the eighties, which became in effect a gambling opportunity for anyone who had a few quid stashed away – "Let's have a flutter on Sid" type thing. This is about creating structures in which the workers can share in the success of their employers by becoming part owners. Much more like, say, John Lewis, or, in the seventies, the National Freight Corporation. And things have moved on even since then. New corporate forms such as limited liability partnerships enable different types of partners entitled to different proportions of the profit, not just the providers of the capital.

Again, with the Citizen's Income behind them enabling people to turn down work that does not offer optimum returns to the worker, more and more employers would have to offer the sort of package of benefits that enables ordinary workers to build up a financial stake for the future. These financial assets are fairer than putting all your capital assets in the single basket of one's home, which is not really "net wealth" in any case. More liberal than both socialist style "common ownership" and ownership solely by the capitalist, such partnerships would generate real wealth that can produce an income when you no longer want to work for whatever reason.

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These three measures are, I believe, essential to a truly economic liberal platform. They share, equitably, the common wealth created by us all, and distribute more fairly the ownership of financial assets between those who provide capital and those who provide labour to an enterprise. They would reduce the cost of the basics of life by removing tariffs, subsidies and the private collection of rents and so instantly make people better off. They would leave a vanishingly small number of people genuinely unable to fend for themselves and the "parish rate" system would enable localities to support them while the work-shy would have a hard time surviving only on their Citizen's Income and those who are currently trapped on benefits have every incentive to take up even small amounts of work to top up their Citizen's Income.

It is time for such a revolution, for the Liberal Democrats and for the country. You don't have to be the first country on the planet to do this, but whoever does will instantly become the most liberal and economically just country on the planet and a magnet for international trade seeking to avoid damaging tariffs. We have gone sixty, a hundred, even, if herbert Spencer is to be believed a hundred and fifty years tinkering with redistributive policies involving moving incomes that people have worked to achieve around and still have not achieved the "greater good". The recent press coverage of the Welfare Green Paper shows that the politics of envy and "deserving and undeserving" are still alive and well. It is time to try these different strategies instead of "more of the same" attempts to be tough on the undefined undeserving.

And the biggest prize of all – it would enable us to get rid of vast swathes of bureaucracy and get those state employees into real productive work generating real additional wealth for the country instead of pushing other peoples' around the corridors of Whitehall.

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