Proposals for root-and-branch reform of the welfare state are not the prerogative of the radical Right. In recent years, the Left too has been rethinking its approach to social policy. One idea, in particular, has seized the imagination of radical libertarians, liberal socialists, socially minded liberals and communitarian critics of liberal individualism. Under a system of taxes and transfers which has come to be known as Citizens’ Income (ci), the state would issue recurrent cash grants to all its citizens, each in his or her own right, without imposing any means test or work requirement. The debate prompted by this proposal has been stimulating and searching, and in the belief that the issues raised deserve a wider audience, this essay surveys the state of the art.

To set the scene, I comment first on the current crisis of the welfare state and summarize two rival designs for a new social settlement: the neo-liberal vision of individual self-reliance in a residual welfare state; and the idea of reorganizing the work–income nexus around Citizens’ Income.

In any new field of enquiry it takes time to agree on terminology, and many people use the terms ‘Citizens’ Income’, ‘Basic Income’, ‘Universal Grant’ and ‘Social Dividend’ as if they were synonyms. In the interests of clarity, I shall use different words to mean different things. The semantics of social transfers are discussed in section 2, where I distinguish the main general types of social transfer system and clarify the meaning of citizenship. In section 3, I further distinguish between the general principle of unconditional transfer payments and the narrower concept of a Basic Income (bi) linked to some conception of subsistence.

ci is a field of debate, rather than a settled programme. An analogy might be the distinction between the concept of proportional representation as an abstract ideal and the various alternative voting systems which attempt to put it into effect. In section 4, I comment on two open, but vital issues: the appropriate balance between public goods and marketed commodities in meeting any given standard of subsistence; and the finance and management of a ci system. Throughout sections 3 and 4, three questions recur: Is Basic Income morally justifiable? Would it be economically viable? And would it be politically feasible? In section 5, I argue that in practice these three questions are interrelated, and that the transition to a ‘Basic Income Democracy’ is unlikely to succeed, or even begin, without the support of a broad social and political alliance.

No one should underestimate the problems of alliance-building in an age when the labour movement has ceased to be the ‘natural’ motor of social progress. Nevertheless, there are at least two moderately favourable precedents for a project which would end ‘wage-slavery’ without ending capitalism: the development of social insurance schemes; and the rise of Keynesian social democracy. Having examined these precedents, I suggest that the rudiments of an alliance for social citizenship already exist in the advanced capitalist democracies. But if this embryonic consensus is to flourish, supporters of Basic Income must engage with mainstream politics and bring their long-range vision to bear on the pressing problems of the present.

Whatever their underlying rationale, in one way or another all welfare states affect the distribution of social advantages and disadvantages, both among persons and over each person’s life cycle. In so far as social policy seeks to promote some conception of social justice, it is concerned with questions of interpersonal distribution. Nevertheless, in considering whether any given arrangement is just, it will often make more sense to adopt a lifelong perspective than to rely on a snapshot taken at a single point in time.

In what follows, I focus on social transfers, as distinct from the other main branches of social policy: social services, such as public education and health care; and the various forms of social regulation, such as anti-discrimination laws, statutory minimum wages and the framework of industrial relations. It is, however, important to bear in mind the wider remit of social policy and to recognize the interdependence between social policy and economic performance. Clearly, any state’s capacity to finance recurrent expenditure, whether on transfers or on services, varies in the short run with the business cycle, and in the longer run with the rate of economic growth. Conversely, the characteristics of social transfer systems may affect the stability and dynamism of the economy. It is also important, in assessing proposals for reform, to take account of the overall design of social policy. There are different views about the best way to classify welfare states, but all comparative studies agree that the mere presence of a given type of social transfer in a given state matters less than the values, assumptions, commitments and institutions which, taken together, determine the character of that state’s social policy regime.