A new report calls on the state to provide basic services like food, transport and housing – should it?
Jonathan Portes, professor of economics and public policy at King’s College London and co-author of the Universal Basic Services report, says YES.
We are living through a period of unprecedented technological progress, and unemployment is at historically low levels. Yet we have a housing crisis, millions of people in the UK can’t afford to feed themselves properly, and millions more are in low-paid or insecure jobs that offer little in the way of prospects.
Our proposal would ensure – as is already the case with health and education – universal access to information services, free local transport, food for those who need it, and a huge increase in the supply of social housing.
This is eminently affordable. If financed by reducing the personal allowance, it would reduce the cost of living for those on the lowest incomes, while improving their position in the labour market. If we want everyone to be able to fulfil their potential, the state needs to ensure an equitable distribution of not just money, but the opportunity to participate and contribute to society.
This is a realistic first step towards a country that works for everyone.
Mark Littlewood, director-general of the Institute of Economic Affairs, says NO.
It is extraordinary that, considering the ongoing concerns about the National Health Service’s performance (and how well it compares with other systems), anyone would want to take the way we run the NHS and extend it to food and housing provision.
Many of the problems of high costs of living that this report seeks to solve can be traced directly to previous well-meaning government interventions in the economy – such as the Town and Country Planning Act and energy policies.
However, the greatest point militating against this idea is the removal of choice over the most fundamental issues in our lives. Do not doubt that this policy would be the thin end of the nanny state wedge – for example, try to imagine government food vouchers being redeemable at McDonald’s.
We clearly need a system that protects the poorest in our society from the worst excesses of poverty. But this system must ensure that they retain their independence and agency, not simply become vassals of the state.