We need a Negative Income Tax, not a Living Wage


The new Living Wage rate was announced today. I’ve written a bit about the Living Wage already. If it’s private, it’s probably not a big deal, although it could still lead to unemployment. I suspect it’s done by big firms that don’t have many low-skilled workers as a PR move but I quite like PR moves that involve paying low skilled people more. And I worry that people will generalize from those big firms to assume that the whole market could bear a mandatory Living Wage, which is almost certainly untrue and would be very harmful to many of the people it’s supposed to help. What’s more interesting is the problem of low pay in general. Even though unemployment has fallen a lot in recent years in the UK, real wages have barely risen at all. Even as wages do begin to rise on average, it’s possible that wages for low skilled workers may not as jobs for them are outsourced to cheaper countries. The ASI has proposed raising the personal allowance (including National Insurance threshold) to the minimum wage rate, but this doesn’t do much good for part-time workers or currently-unemployed people who would earn below the minimum wage if we scrapped that, as I think we should.

So low pay may be a problem without any clear solution, for which most popular ‘solutions’ don’t actually work.

But there may be a fix that does work – a Negative Income Tax or a Basic Income. As I’ve written before these are actually very similar even though one is almost exclusively supported by right-wingers and the other almost exclusively by left-wingers. As ever in politics, we’re speaking different languages.

A Negative Income Tax is a form of income top-up that only looks at an individual’s income, not whether they are in work or not, and tops that income up automatically if they are earning less than a given amount. The extra money is withdrawn at a tapered rate, so that for every pound you earn from work, you lose (say) fifty pence in top-up, ensuring that workers always have a clear incentive to demand higher wages, and that work always pays more than joblessness for unemployed people.

This would replace lots of existing working age benefits, including Jobseekers’ Allowance, council tax relief, the Employment and Support Allowance and tax credits. You could probably implement a decent one without increasing total expenditure. The exact rates can be determined by running trials across the country.

A Negative Income Tax like this would almost certainly be a boon to people on low pay, and would avoid most of the problems that minimum wages and current welfare schemes face.

Indeed the main objection may simply be that it is redistributive. That’s where I break with many of my fellow libertarians – I want free markets because they make poor people’s lives better, and I am OK with redistribution if it’s done in a market-friendly way that makes poor people’s lives better too. If this sounds surprising, remember that this puts me in the same boat as Milton Friedman (who campaigned for a Negative Income Tax) and FA Hayek, and indeed in the same utilitarian philosophical camp as Ludwig von Mises.

I suspect low pay will continue to be a problem for many years, maybe becoming even worse as automation renders some people permanently unemployable. It is necessary but not sufficient to simply rebut other people's bad ideas.

In the Negative Income Tax we have a policy that can actually go a big way to solving the problem, and hopefully replace some of the harmful policies we have right now. Rhetorically, I think we free marketeers need more positive solutions to policy problems, and if we could get over our squeamishness about endorsing certain forms of 'good' redistribution, we may be able to surprise people into listening to and maybe even agreeing with us. If low pay is indeed the long-term problem that it seems to be, the Negative Income Tax’s time may finally have come.