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AHRC Network Grant Secured: "The Future of Work and Income"

25 November 2020

Alexander Douglas and Ben Sachs have been awarded an AHRC Networking grant worth approximately £24,000 for their project "The Future of Work and Income". The money will be used to host university and public events, build a database of academic resources, and create online materials to encourage philosophically-oriented research into the changing world of work. We hope to explore the philosophical implications around innovative policy proposals such as the universal basic income (or dividend), the job guarantee, the mandatory living wage, and so on.

It is widely believed that the future of work and income will look very different to the past. Future generations might be less able than their parents were to find secure, long-term employment, supplying them with enough income to meet their basic living expenses. They will face new challenges and perhaps new opportunities, due to technological change, demographic dynamics, and environmental factors. Various policy responses have been proposed to help us face these changes: a negative income tax, a citizen’s dividend, a universal basic income, a state-sponsored jobs guarantee, and other sorts of radical wage- and income-support policies.

The Covid-19 crisis led to many radical income-support policies being promoted and in some cases brought in as emergency measures. It also revealed how much fierce disagreement exists among the proponents of these various policies. Our preliminary research suggests that some of this debate has been less constructive than it might have been, due to the lack of a clear philosophical framework. The disagreements are not only over the consequences of various policies; they rest upon implicit philosophical differences, and omitting these stultifies the debate. Our project will deploy our philosophical expertise to build a framework for philosophical discussion, guiding participants in policy debates to think more explicitly about the philosophical foundations of their beliefs. Our activities are necessary to produce a philosophical framework required to advance an urgent policy discussion.

The philosophical foundations to which we refer are, on one hand, core normative beliefs about value and fairness and, on the other hand, fundamental conceptual understandings of work, entitlement, welfare, and related notions.

On the normative side, conversations often focus on the economic and political constraints on various policies that involve subsidising the income of certain groups at the expense of others: it is asked whether such policies will have good or bad consequences on the incentives of various stakeholders. But there ought to be a parallel discussion of normative aspects of the policies: which ones are fair? which ones respect the rights of citizens, the duties of the state, etc.? how should we value freedom against social obligations, solidarity, and so on?

We believe that the attempt to separate out the economic and political discussion of incentives from the normative discussion of values is misguided. We don’t know what behaviour we ought to incentivize until we decide what behaviour is ethically defensible, and the success and failure of policies depends on the public acceptance or rejection of the values they are seen to embody. It is therefore impossible to avoid thinking about values in assessing the feasibility of various policies. Policy analysts require a clear philosophical framework for the discussion of values, allowing fundamental differences to be identified, addressed, and in at least some cases resolved.

On the conceptual side, we believe that debate over radical policies concerning work and income can easily run aground on conceptual confusions. When we move from speaking about actual situations to possible or counterfactual ones, the conversation immediately becomes conceptual. A question like ‘is it possible to pay an unconditional basic income to every citizen?’ depends on what we mean by ‘unconditional’, ‘basic’, ‘income’, etc. We believe that conceptual confusions sometimes creep into debates over policies like this. Debates about affordability, for instance, sometimes fail when one side represents resources in real terms while the other represents them in nominal terms, or when one side measures substitution-effects where the other measures income-effects. A clear philosophical framework will involve a shared domain of sharply-defined concepts, ensuring that participants in policy discussions avoid talking past each other.

Building a philosophical framework for constructive policy discussion will enable us to bring together researchers and advocates working on work and income policy, moderate and observe their discussions, and identify points of philosophical disagreement. Our project will thus generate fruitful discussion among groups who might not otherwise engage with each other, at least not at the philosophically fundamental level we aim to reach.

The project will cross disciplinary boundaries within academia. Our list of potential collaborators includes researchers in philosophy, economics, political theory, management, and sociology. It will also bring academics into contact with those working outside of academia, as we intend to include employees of education charities, policy think tanks, and government. Our workshops will provide a space for researchers, educators, advocates, and policymakers to find new opportunities to debate and collaborate.

The broader research context is, first and foremost, one in which as of yet the foundational philosophical work that needs to be done in order to ground a proper evaluation of new policy proposals has not been done. This is all the more pressing given the general trend towards increased international interest in the future of work and income, signified by the examples of the Basic Income Earth Network and the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity (which publishes research related to job guarantee programmes). At the domestic level, which is where we will focus our efforts, some indications of the research context are: