By Jacob Middleton
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Review of 'Redesigning Distribution', editors Bruce A Ackermann et al, Verso £17.99
Issue 304

Redesigning Distribution starts with an inadvertent confession by Real Utopias Project series editor, Marxist academic Erik Olin Wright. The papers in Verso’s collection of essays had originally been titled “Rethinking Redistribution”, but that was felt to be inappropriate for capturing the problem of finding that “combination of voluntary choice and authoritative allocation [which] generates the most desirable outcomes.”

Of course, once the necessarily political implications of “redistribution” are discretely swept away, it becomes much easier to present the work of Tony Blair’s health policy adviser alongside a Marxist like Olin Wright. Where building a “real utopia” once was presumed to involve the necessity of confronting established interests, that political clarity can be abandoned for a vague fuzz about “social justice”. So much the better if the fuzz can be used to wrap up a fundamental support for market institutions.

Redesigning Distribution makes such support its explicit aim. Its essays concern two closely related schemes that attempt to sneak a minimal redistribution under the nose of the free market. One set of essays plugs the “basic income guarantee”, the other a “stakeholder grant”. The idea underlying both is similar – a basic income guarantee provides a certain minimum income for all. A stakeholder grant is a lump sum paid to everyone when they reach a certain age.

In both cases, a small initial redistribution is made, via the tax system, but then the market is left to deal with its consequences. This is very different from the usual, socialist understanding of welfare institutions as working fundamentally against the operations of the free market. As socialist and labour movements appreciated, it was necessary to disrupt the market to secure social justice.

Indeed, the basic income guarantee and the stakeholder grant could be used to undermine the welfare state. The high priest of neo-liberalism, Milton Friedman, was among the first to propose a form of basic income guarantee, back in the 1960s. This was not out of desire to help the poor – Friedman recognised that once everyone was relying on the market, political support for the welfare state could be eaten away.

Something like that thought appears to be motivating our own government. Julian Le Grand, in a central essay, describes the new Child Trust Fund (CTF), as announced by Gordon Brown last year. The government will give £250 to each child born after September 2002, a sum that parents can then invest in a variety of approved schemes.

Le Grand claims a long, radical lineage for similar plans, citing Thomas Paine as an early advocate. Paine, as Le Grand may be aware, also advocated free education for all – an idea that New Labour are less enthusiastic about. Never mind, however, as once the CTF is in place, Le Grand tells us that “higher education subsidies can be further reduced without making anyone worse off, since one potential use for the grant could be to pay for tuition and living expenses while acquiring higher education.” The intent is made clear – the CTF will weaken support for free education.

Redesigning Distribution is best read as a glimpse into the Third Way mindset. The essays are interesting not so much because of what they say than why they are saying it. It is faintly unsettling to realise that at least some, nominally on the left, have accommodated neo-liberalism so readily.

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