Markets and Morality

Universal Basic Gobbledygook


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The Social Prosperity Network (SPN) is part of the Institute for Global Prosperity (IGP) at University College London (UCL). Last week they published a report advocating what they call Universal Basic Services (UBS). Lovers of TLAs (three letter acronyms) will be ecstatic. Lovers of clarity and reason may be less delighted.

The proposals are clear enough. Tax-funded “free” mobile phones, internet access and BBC licences for everyone. Tax-funded “free” bus travel for everyone. Doubling the number of state houses. And one in three meals provided by the state for the poorest 8% of families.

It is odd to call a means-tested benefit received by only 8% of households universal. But never mind. The difficulty lies not in understanding what the proposals are, but why they are a good idea. The first six pages of the report are devoted to justifying them. Alas, the justifications offered rely on opaque and unexplained concepts and merely assert what needs to be demonstrated.

Start at the beginning. In her Forward to the report, Professor Henrietta Moore, director of IPG, describes the problem UBS is supposed to solve:

“The continuing failure to deliver quality of life and prosperity for all is eroding the social cohesion on which our society depends, and undermining its ability to address the significant environmental, demographic, health and work challenges that lie ahead.” (p.5)

Andrew Percy, the principal author of the report, repeats this idea immediately after the Forward:

“Various policy approaches over the last 30 years have failed to make sufficient progress in delivering the balanced society we aspire to, and which we will need to navigate the challenges looming ahead of us now.

“Acknowledging that we are failing to deliver the necessary social cohesion …” (p.9)

But what do they mean by “social cohesion”? The closest they come to saying is in Prof. Moore’s claim that,

“If we are to increase cohesion, the sense that we are ‘all in it together’, we must act where we can have the greatest impact and that is on the cost of basic living.” (p.6)

Alas, defining social cohesion as the sense that we are “all in it together” is of little help, because this “sense” is no clearer than the concept it is supposed to define. Who are “we” and what is the “it” that we sense we are together in? Why does society depend on this sense? How much of this sense is required for society? Why will this sense be increased by UBS? The authors do not merely fail to answer these questions. They don’t even try to.

Nor do they attempt any defence of their claim that social cohesion is eroding in Britain. Even if it is unclear what social cohesion is, we might expect to observe its erosion in more tangible things. Crime, for example. If social cohesion has eroded over recent decades, we should expect crime rates to have risen. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Crime rates in the UK have declined significantly since the mid-1990s. And, though more difficult to measure, racism, sexism and homophobia seem to have been in retreat over recent decades. Perhaps reduced crime and reduced antipathy towards various sections of the population are consistent with an erosion of social cohesion, at least, as the expression is used by SPN. But it is impossible to know, since they do not explain their claim nor provide any evidence for it.

Increased social cohesion is not the only benefit that SPN alleges will flow from UBS. Mr Percy claims that it will also give ordinary people a “larger life”. Indeed, the title of the first chapter of the report is “Universal Basic Services: A larger life for the ordinary person”.

But nowhere in the chapter is the size of a life explained. Do I have a large life or a small one? Nothing in the chapter allows me to know. The closest Mr Percy comes to an explanation is this:

“A ‘larger life for the ordinary person’, described by Roberto Unger as the core purpose of progress and the key role for government, fits with our view of the meaning of ‘social prosperity’.” (p.10)

But this only adds to the confusion. What does it mean to say that a larger life for the ordinary person fits with social prosperity – or, more accurately, fits with SPN’s “view of the meaning of ‘social prosperity’”? It is gobbledygook. One utterly opaque concept (life largeness) is being explained in terms of an opaque relationship (fitting) with another opaque notion (social prosperity). Nor does Mr Percy provide any evidence that UBS will bring about a larger life for the ordinary person. How could he, given the apparent meaninglessness of the notion? Nevertheless, we are supposed to adopt UBS on the basis of this waffle.

There is more bizarre verbiage in the report, such as calling work “operagraphics”, a word hitherto unknown in English, except as the name of a company that makes opera themed gift pens. But I will finish with the authors’ use of “we”. Consider this sentence, already quoted:

“Various policy approaches over the last 30 years have failed to make sufficient progress in delivering the balanced society we aspire to …” (p.9)

Who does “we” refer to? It surely cannot refer simply to the staff of SPN. They cannot be suggesting such a radical overhaul of welfare policy on the ground that it would give this handful of people the society that they want. No one is that arrogant – not openly, at least.

No, the “we” is intended to suggest some already agreed collective national desire for a “balanced society”. But there is no such consensus. I, for one, am not part of it, if only because I have no idea what it means for a society to be balanced. And I don’t see how anyone else can be part of it either, since no one can know what the authors mean by “balanced” in this context. It is simple BS, used to smuggle in the authors’ social goals without having to argue for them.

If the authors’ proposals are adopted, people who refuse to fund UBS will be imprisoned. That is how taxation works. You might expect people planning to imprison those who refuse to go along with their plans to display a little more rigour in their reasoning.

Former Director of Research

Jamie Whyte is the former Research Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs. Prior to joining the IEA, Jamie was the leader of ACT New Zealand as well as the Head of Research and Publishing at Oliver Wyman Financial Services. He has previously worked as a management consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, as a philosophy lecturer at Cambridge University and as a foreign currency trader.


3 thoughts on “Universal Basic Gobbledygook”

  1. Posted 17/10/2017 at 12:58 | Permalink

    Jamie has drawn attention to the non-sequiturs and logical flaws.
    My first impressions (and I must read the report more fully) are:
    (1) The headline data they start with (eg ‘4 million can’t put food on the table’) need proper examination to see what they mean.
    (2) I am surprised that economists like Jonathan Portes endorse the idea that it is better to give people arbitrary entitlements rather than cash to spend as they choose. Many people do not want or cannot use entitlements to free bus rides, internet access or BBC television.

  2. Posted 18/10/2017 at 18:17 | Permalink

    It is on a par with just about all the Left’s claims that underlie their policies. “Fairness” is always a favourite: I doubt if two people in the UK would agree in every situation about what is “fair” and what is not. Equality is similar, and is used to justify all sorts of policies, even though very few people think ensuring equality of outcome would be “fair”. It is the pseudo-economics that really grates though, the selective use of some concepts and the claimed overturning of others with “evidence” to justify often ludicrous proposals. The idea that printing money and using that to “properly fund” the NHS is one recent example.

  3. Posted 19/10/2017 at 13:43 | Permalink

    The opening section in a report is called a “Foreword” and not a “Forward”.

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