Citizen’s Basic Income – Review
Citizen’s Basic Income: A Christian Social Policy, by Malcolm Torry, September 2016. Darton,Longman & Todd, ISBN 978-0232532609, 170 pages. RRP £9.99 (paperback)
It is clear that Malcolm Torry has considerable expertise when it comes to citizen’s basic income, having written extensively on the subject over several decades. What this book adds is a framing of it as a Christian social policy. The technical issues such as defining citizen’s basic income, and exploring the arguments for and against it, are largely dealt with in the introduction. This provides a good summary of the practical issues, for those less familiar with this concept. The rest of the book is essentially Torry’s case that citizen’s basic income is consistent with, and perhaps to some extent inspired by, various biblical texts and Christian values.
Sometimes Torry explores biblical texts in depth, while at other times he refers to them more loosely to explore a theme. A good example of this would be his chapter on citizen’s basic income as an act of grace. “At the heart of the Christian faith is the grace of God; a nonwithdrawable love, an unconditional generosity” (p. 22). Whereas means tested benefits come with conditions and intrusive scrutiny, citizen’s basic income is more analogous to divine grace, he argues, being unconditional and not subject to withdrawal. This looser exploration of themes can at times feel like something of a Procrustean bed. He is definitely much stronger in his more detailed textual work, such as his exploration of the Creation narratives in Chapter One. From this he persuasively argues that such texts speak of the abundance of Creation, and how the “good” things of Creation were to be justly distributed. In this context citizen’s basic income can be framed as a “celebration” of the God-given abundance that has become obscured by human greed.
In the penultimate chapter Torry discusses the issue of paying for basic income. In doing so he discusses the tithing regulations in Deuteronomy, which include provision for those who do not have their own land. He also discusses in some depth Jesus’s teaching in relation to taxation. He notes some of the tensions in the Gospels, but ultimately concludes that if there had been a citizen’s basic income in the Roman Empire, “Jesus would have been comfortable with a fair income tax to pay for it” (p. 133). Unfortunately he doesn’t really provide adequate justification for this assertion.
Another suggested source of revenue to pay for basic income is the introduction of a financial transaction tax, but this is not fully developed, as Torry’s focus here is more on theology. He concludes with a summary of the various theological justifications for citizen’s basic income. None of these are particularly persuasive on their own, and yet when one looks at them collectively they make a reasonably good cumulative case. Finally, in the appendices he sets out two citizen’s basic income schemes for the UK context, and some options for reforming the UK tax and benefits system. Given Torry’s considerable expertise, this is without a doubt the strongest part of the book. I felt the theological aspects of the book were less insightful, but nevertheless constitute a good starting point for further theological engagement. Overall it was an enjoyable read, and Torry is to be commended for showing that theology can contribute to social policy, particularly for believers who look to scripture for guidance.