A short history of the Basic Income idea

No, the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income is not to be found in Thomas More’s Utopia. Nor was it first formulated by Thomas Paine. As far as we know, it was first proposed at the local level by Thomas Spence at the end of the 18th century and at the national level by Joseph Charlier in the middle of the 19th. It was the subject of short-lived national debates in England around 1920 and in the United States around 1970. It resurfaced in Western Europe around 1980 and slowly spread until it gained worldwide popularity from 2016 onwards.

1. Minimum income: More (1516) and Vives (1526)

More: Raphael’s cure for theft

The idea of a minimum income guaranteed by the government to all the members of a particular community is far older than the more specific and more radical idea of an Unconditional Basic Income. With the advent of the Renaissance, the task of looking after the welfare of poor people ceased to be regarded as the exclusive preserve of the Church and of charitable individuals. Some of the so-called humanists started playing with the idea of a minimum income in the form of public assistance. In part II of Thomas More’s (1478-1535) Utopia, published in Louvain in 1516, the Portuguese traveller Raphael Nonsenso, having allegedly met More on the central square of the City of Antwerp, famously described the institutions he observed when visiting the island of Utopia. The inhabitants of Utopia all have access to adequate means of subsistence provided in kind, coupled with compulsory labour. This hardly qualifies as an Unconditional Basic Income. Moreover, More insists that his finding these institutions fascinating enough to write down their description does not entail that he endorses them. The closest one can find to a serious proposal in that direction is to be found instead in part I of Utopia. Raphael Nonsenso narrates there a conversation he says he had with John Morton, the Archbishop of Canterbury. The provision of means of livelihood to the poor, he argued, would be a more astute way of fighting theft than sentencing thieves to death, which had the unpleasant side effect of increasing the murder rate:

thomas-more

Thomas More

I once happened to be dining with the Cardinal when a certain English lawyer was there. I forgot how the subject came up, but he was speaking with great enthusiasm about the stern measures that were then being taken against thieves. ‘We’re hanging them all over the place’, he said. ‘I’ve seen as many as twenty on a single gallows. And that’s what I find so odd. Considering how few of them get away with it, how come we are still plagued with so many robbers?’ ‘What’s odd about it?’, I asked – for I never hesitated to speak freely in front of the Cardinal. ‘This method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and undesirable. As a punishment, it’s too severe, and as a deterrent, it’s quite ineffective. Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty. And no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food. In this respect, you English, like most other nations, remind me of these incompetent schoolmasters, who prefer caning their pupils to teaching them. Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.” Contrary to the fanciful description of Utopia’s institutions, this passage can be understood as reflecting More’s own views. But nothing in it indicates that the means of livelihood (proventus vitae) are meant to be provided through publicly-funded benefits, let alone to everyone. And a later passage rather suggests that a rise in economic activity will do the trick.

Vives: A pragmatic theological plea for public assistance

It is, however, a close friend of Thomas More who can be regarded as the true father of the idea of a publicly administered minimum income scheme, the ancestor of today’s many national public assistance schemes and thereby arguably a crucial stepping stone on the way towards an Unconditional Basic Income. Fellow humanist Johannes Ludovicus Vives (1492-1540) was the first to work out a detailed scheme and develop a comprehensive argument for it, based both on theological and pragmatic considerations. He was born in Valencia in a family of converted Jews. He left Spain in 1509 to escape the Inquisition, studied in Paris at the Sorbonne but soon got fed up by the conservative scholastic philosophy that was prevailing in Paris at the time and moved on to Bruges in 1512, and in 1517 to Louvain, one of the main centres of the humanist movement, where he was recruited by Erasmus for his newly founded Collegium Trilingue. He taught more briefly at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, but spent most of his adult life in the city of Bruges, where his statue can be seen on the bank of one of the main canals. In a booklet dedicated to the Mayor of Bruges in 1526 under the title De Subventione Pauperum (On the Assistance to the Poor), he proposed that the municipal government should be given the responsibility of securing a subsistence minimum to all its residents, not on grounds of justice but for the sake of a more effective exercise of morally required charity. The assistance scheme would be closely targeted to the poor. Indeed it is because of their ability to target them more efficiently that public officials should be put in charge of poor relief. To be entitled to public charity, a poor person’s poverty must not be undeserved, but he must deserve the help he gets by proving his willingness to work:

ohannes-Ludovicus-Vives

Even those who have dissipated their fortunes in dissolute living – through gaming, harlots, excessive luxury, gluttony and gambling – should be given food, for no one should die of hunger. However, smaller rations and more irksome tasks should be assigned to them so that they may be an example to others. […] They must not die of hunger, but they must feel its pangs.” Whatever the source of poverty, the poor are expected to work. “Even to the old and the stupid, it should be possible to give a job they can learn in a few days, such as digging holes, getting water or carrying something on their shoulders.” The point of requiring such toil from the beneficiaries of the scheme is in part to make them contribute to the funding of the latter. But it is also to make sure that “being busy and engrossed in their work, they will abstain from those wicked thoughts and actions in which they would engage if they were idle.” Indeed, this concern should consistently extend to those born rich: Emperor Justinian was right, according to Vives, “in imposing a law that forbade everyone to spend his life in idleness”. If the poor cannot be parasites, why could the rich?

At two junctures, Vives anticipates some insights that will drive later thinkers in the direction of a Basic Income. “All these things God created, He put them in our large home, the world, without surrounding them with walls and gates, so that they would be common to all His children.” Hence, unless he helps those in need, whoever has appropriated some of the gifts of nature “is only a thief condemned by natural law, because he occupies and keeps what nature has not created exclusively for himself”. Further, Vives insists that relief should come “before need induces some mad or wicked action, before the face of the needy blushes from shame… The benefaction that precedes the hard and thankless necessity of asking is more pleasant and more worthy of thanks”. But he explicitly discards the more radical conclusion that it would be even better if “the gift were made before the need arose”, which is exactly what an adequate Basic Income would achieve.

From Vives to the English Poor Laws and modern social assistance

Vives’s plea most probably inspired a scheme put into place a few years later by the Flemish municipality of Ypres. It also contributed to inspiring incipient thinking and action about forms of poor relief, from the School of Salamanca of Francisco de Vitoria and Domingo de Soto (from 1536 onwards) to England’s Poor Laws (from 1576 onwards). Less well remembered than his friends and protectors Erasmus and More, Vives’s pioneering thinking on the welfare state has been recently rediscovered.

He is also still remembered in his Alma Mater, the University of Louvain: A stone from his house has been incorporated in the wall of the “Universitaire Halle”, which houses the rectorate in the old town of Leuven. And the meeting room of the Hoover Chair in the new town of Louvain-la-Neuve, where the Collectif Charles Fourier met in 1984-86 to discuss Basic Income and organise the founding meeting of the Basic Income European Network, has been named “Salle Vives”.

Vives’s tract is the first systematic expression of a long tradition of social thinking and institutional reform focused on the public exercise of compassion through government-organised means-tested schemes directed at the poor. Despite the difficulties and doubts aroused by the operation of the Poor Laws, the thinkers of the nouveau régime made public assistance an essential function of the government. Thus, Montesquieu in L’Esprit des Lois (1748): “The State owes all its citizens a secure subsistence, food, suitable clothes and a way of life that does not damage their health”. This line of thought eventually led to the setting up of comprehensive, nationally-funded guaranteed minimum income schemes in a growing number of countries, most recently, Italy’s reddito di cittadinanza (2019) and Spain’s ingreso minimo vital (2020).

2. Basic endowment: Condorcet (1794) and Paine (1796)

Condorcet on social insurance

However, towards the end of the 18th century, a different idea emerged that was to play an even greater role in the alleviation of poverty throughout Europe. The first known person to have sketched the idea is the mathematician, philosopher and political activist, Antoine Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794). After having played a prominent role in the French revolution, both as a journalist and as a member of the Convention, Condorcet was sentenced to death. While in hiding, he wrote his most systematic work, the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain (published posthumously by his widow in 1795), whose last chapter contains a brief sketch of what a social insurance might look like and how it could reduce inequality, insecurity and poverty.

Condorcet

The Marquis de Condorcet

There is therefore a necessary cause of inequality, of dependency and even of misery, which constantly threatens the most numerous and most active class of our societies. We shall show that we can to a large extent removing it, by opposing luck to itself, by securing to those who reach old age a relief that is the product of what he saved, but increased by the savings of those individuals who made the same sacrifice but died before the time came for them to need to collect its fruit; by using a similar compensation to provide women and children, at the moment they lose their husbands or fathers, with resources at the same level and acquired at the same price, whether the family concerned was afflicted by a premature death or could keep its head for longer; and finally by giving to those children who become old enough to work by themselves and found a new family the advantage of a capital required by the development of their activity and increased as the result of some dying too early to be able to enjoy it. It is to the application of calculus to the probabilities of life and to the investment of money that one owes the idea of this method. The latter has already been successfully used, but never on the scale and with the variety of forms that would make it really useful, not merely to a handful of individuals, but to the entire mass of society. It would free the latter from the periodic bankruptcy of a large number of families, that inexhaustible source of corruption and misery.”

This distinct idea will end up shaping, one century later, the development of Europe’s massive social insurance systems, starting with Otto von Bismarck’s old age pension and health insurance schemes for the industrial labour force of unified Germany (from 1883 onwards). Though not targeted to the poor and involving massive transfers to the non-poor, these systems soon started having a huge impact on poverty as their development quickly dwarfed public assistance schemes and relegated them to a subsidiary role. In one way, social insurance brought us closer to Basic Income than public assistance, as the social benefits it distributed were not prompted by compassion, but by an entitlement, based in this case on the premiums paid into the insurance system. In another way, however, it took us away from Basic Income, precisely because entitlement to the benefits is now based on having paid (or having had one’s employer paying) enough contributions in the past, typically in the form of some percentage of one’s wage. For this reason, unlike the most comprehensive versions of public assistance, even the most comprehensive forms of social insurance cannot provide a guaranteed minimum income.

Condorcet and Paine on basic endowment

However, it is the very same Marquis de Condorcet who was the first to briefly mention, in the context of his discussion of social insurance, the idea of a benefit restricted neither to the poor (deserving of our compassion) nor to the insured (entitled to compensation if the risk materialises), namely the idea of “giving to those children who become old enough to work by themselves and found a new family the advantage of a capital required by the development of their activity.” Condorcet himself is not known to have said or written anything else on the subject, but his close friend and fellow member of the Convention Thomas Paine (1737-1809) developed the idea in far greater detail, two years after Condorcet’s death, in a memoir addressed to the Directoire, the five-member executive that ruled France during most of the period separating the beheading of Robespierre and the rise of Napoleon.

Thomas_Paine

Thomas Paine

It is a position not to be controverted, he writes, that the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was, and ever would have continued to be, the common property of the human race.” As the land gets cultivated, “it is the value of the improvement, only, and not the earth itself, that is in individual property. Every proprietor, therefore, of cultivated lands, owes to the community a ground-rent (for I know of no better term to express the idea) for the land which he holds; and it is from this ground-rent that the fund proposed in this plan is to issue.” Out of this fund, “there shall be paid to every person, when arrived at the age of twenty-one years, the sum of fifteen pounds sterling, as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property. And also, the sum of ten pounds per annum, during life, to every person now living, of the age of fifty years, and to all others as they shall arrive at that age”. Payments, Paine insists, should be made “to every person, rich or poor”, “because it is in lieu of the natural inheritance, which, as a right, belongs to every man, over and above the property he may have created, or inherited from those who did

This idea of an equal basic endowment given to all as they reach adulthood, reappeared now and then, for example in the writings of the French political philosopher François Huet. In Le Règne social du christianisme (1853), he proposed that young people should all be given an endowment financed out of the taxation of the whole of that part of land and other property which the bequeather has himself received. This idea of a universal endowment, was revived by Yale Law School Professors, Bruce Ackerman and Anne Alstott (The Stakeholder Society, 1999), also combined, as it was by  Paine, with a universal basic retirement pension, yet no longer justified by common ownership of the earth, but by some more comprehensive conception of justice as equality of opportunities. More recently, the idea was picked up again, among others, by economists Anthony Atkinson (Inequality, 2015) and Thomas Piketty (Capital et idéologie, 2020).

3. Unconditional Basic income: Spence (1796), Fourier (1829) and Charlier (1848) 

Thomas Spence’s municipal Basic Income

Whereas Thomas Paine cannot be said to have advocated a genuine lifelong Basic Income, his contemporary and compatriot Thomas Spence (1750-1814) definitely can. In a booklet published in 1796 under the title The Meridian Sun of Liberty, he argues, like Paine, that everyone is equally entitled to the land. Therefore, “the land with all that appertains to it, is in every parish made the property of the corporation or parish”. The rent on this land should be used to cover various public expenditures. And what is left — about a third, Spence reckons — should be divided equally “among the whole number of souls, male and female, married and single in a parish, from the infant of a day old to the second infantage of hoary hairs”. This booklet is presented as the text of a lecture first given in 1775, but none of the earlier versions that have been found contains an unambiguous defence of an unconditional income. However, an equally explicit defence can be found in The Rights of Infants, which Spence published in 1997, with an appendix containing a fierce criticism of Paine’s stingier proposal. The quarterly equal payment is there estimated to amount to two thirds of the revenues from the rent on all land, and its universality is again forcefully stressed: it should accrue to “all the living souls in the parish, whether male or female; married or single; legitimate or illegitimate; from a day old to the extremest age; making no distinction between the families of rich farmers and merchants and the families of poor labourers and mechanics”.

Charles Fourier’s “forwarded minimum”

Like Paine and Spence, the eccentric and prolific French writer Charles Fourier (1772-1837), one of the radical visionaries whom Marx and Engels labelled “utopian socialists”, argued that an equal entitlement to the earth and its resources justifies some form of income guarantee. As he puts it in La Fausse Industrie (1836), “if the civilized order deprives man of the four branches of natural subsistence, hunting, fishing, picking and grazing, which make up the first right, the class which took the land owes to the frustrated class a minimum of abundant subsistence”. From what he writes in Le Nouveau Monde Industriel et Sociétaire (1829) or in La Fausse Industrie, it is clear that this minimum should be secured in kind. As a lover of details, he mentions, for example, that this would include three modest meals a day. And one set of clothes for each of the three (sic) seasons. But it is also clear that it should be obligation-free, thereby leading to a dramatic improvement in the quality of work: “As the masses, once an abundant minimum is guaranteed to them, would want to work only a little or not at all, one would need to discover and organize a regime of attractive industry which would guarantee that people would keep working despite their well-being.”

charles-fourier

Charles Fourier

What is far less obvious is whether, in Fourier’s view, this minimum should be distributed to all. Most relevant passages suggest that what he has in mind is a compensatory provision targeted at the poor. However, there is one passage in the preface to Le Nouveau Monde industriel et sociétaire (1829) where he speaks of the “copious minimum” being “forwarded” (“avancé”) to all. This advance payment can be safely expected to be refunded (“remboursement”) by very attractive and lucrative work thanks to “a method of fair distribution that allocates to each individual, man, woman or child, three dividends associated with their three industrial faculties: Capital, Labour and Talent”.

This is the passage which is at the source of the first appearance of the concept of Universal Basic Income in respected academic literature, namely in the discussion of Fourierism that John Stuart Mill added to the second edition (1849) of his Principles of Political Economy. This discussion unambiguously ascribes to Fourierism the proposal of a non-means-tested Basic Income:

John_Stuart_Mill

John Stuart Mill

The most skilfully combined, and with the greatest foresight of objections, of all the forms of Socialism, is that commonly known as Fourierism. This System does not contemplate the abolition of private property, nor even of inheritance; on the contrary, it avowedly takes into consideration, as elements in the distribution of the produce, capital as well as labour. […] In the distribution, a certain minimum is first assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labour. The remainder of the produce is shared in certain proportions, to be determined beforehand, among the three elements, Labour, Capital, and Talent.” In his posthumous essay On Socialism (1879), Mill is just as clear “a certain minimum having first been set apart for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labor, the society divides the remainder of the produce among the different groups, in such shares as it finds attract to each the amount of labor required”. This interpretation is endorsed by  G.D.H. Cole in a passage of his History of Socialist Thought (1953) that includes what may well be the very first use of the expression “Basic Income” in today’s sense. Mill, he writes, “praised the Fourieristes, or rather that form of Fourierism which assigned in the first place a Basic Income to all and then distributed the balance of the product in shares to capital, talent or responsibility, and work actually done.”

Joseph Charlier’s territorial dividend

Thus, the idea of an Unconditional Basic Income at the parish level was certainly present from 1796 onwards in the mind of Thomas Spence. It was also arguably present in 1829 in the mind of Charles Fourier. But it is in 1848 that an Unconditional Basic Income was first unambiguously proposed at the level of a whole country. While Karl Marx was finishing off the Communist Manifesto in another neighbourhood of Brussels, Joseph Charlier (1816-1896) published in Brussels a short book entitled Solution du problème social ou constitution humanitaire (1848). Probably inspired by Fourier and his school, he saw the equal right to the ownership of land as the foundation of an unconditional right to some income. But he rejected both the right to means-tested assistance advocated in most relevant passages by Charles Fourier himself and the right to paid work advocated by his most prominent disciple Victor Considerant. The former, he reckoned, only dealt with the effects, and the latter involved too much meddling by the state. Under the labels “minimum” or “revenu garanti” and later “dividende territorial”, he proposed giving every citizen an unconditional right to a quarterly (later, monthly) payment of an amount fixed annually by a representative national council, on the basis of the rental value of all real estate.

The level of this dividend will be such that “the state will secure bread to all but truffles to no one”. However, it will be sufficient to increase the workers’ bargaining power: “Undoubtedly, by raising and improving the material condition of the masses, the implementation of a guaranteed minimum income will make them choosier in the choice of their occupations; but as this choice is usually determined by the price of manpower, the industries concerned will need to offer their workers a salary high enough to compensate for the inconveniences involved.” Therefore, the proposed scheme “will have as an immediate consequence a reparatory remuneration for this class of pariahs presently condemned to misery by way of reward for their irksome and useful labour.” In a letter he sent to the rector of the University of Brussels along with a copy of his last book (La Question sociale résolue, précédée du testament philosophique d’un penseur, 1894), a briefer restatement meant to popularize his message, Charlier reiterated his conviction that his proposal “is the only rational and just solution that should be given to the social question, no offense to my more or less self-interested contradictors. There are truths which one neither wants nor dares to face.” But the world was not ready to listen. Unlike Marx’s Manifesto, written at the same time in the same city, Charlier’s Solution du problème social and his subsequent books were hardly read and quickly forgotten.

  1. From militancy to respectability: England between the wars

It is only in the 20th century that Basic Income became a real subject of discussion. Firstly, under names like “social dividend”, “state bonus” and “national dividend” proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income were developed in inter-war debates in England. Secondly, after some years of silence this type of ideas was rediscovered and gained considerable popularity in debates about “demogrants” and “negative income tax” schemes during the 1960s and 70s in the United States. Thirdly, a new period of debate and exploration emerged as Basic Income proposals started being actively discussed in several countries in North-Western Europe from the late 70s and early 80s. Quite independently, this century also saw the introduction of the world’s first — modest but genuine — Basic Income scheme through the birth of the Alaska Permanent Fund, providing annual dividends to all the inhabitants of Alaska.

4. From militancy to respectability: England between the wars

It is only in the 20th century that Basic Income became a real subject of discussion. Firstly, under names like “social dividend”, “state bonus” and “national dividend” proposals for an Unconditional Basic Income were developed in inter-war debates in England. Secondly, after some years of silence this type of ideas was rediscovered and gained considerable popularity in debates about “demogrants” and “negative income tax” schemes during the 1960s and 70s in the United States. Thirdly, a new period of debate and exploration emerged as Basic Income proposals started being actively discussed in several countries in North-Western Europe from the late 70s and early 80s. Quite independently, this century also saw the introduction of the world’s first — modest but genuine — Basic Income scheme through the birth of the Alaska Permanent Fund, providing annual dividends to all the inhabitants of Alaska.

Russell’s combination of anarchism and socialism

Things start waking up in Britain in 1918, towards the end of the First World War. In Roads to Freedom, a short and incisive book first published in 1918, the mathematician, philosopher, non-conformist political thinker, militant pacifist and Nobel laureate in literature Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) argues for a social model that combines the advantages of socialism and anarchism. One central component of it is a UBI “sufficient for necessaries”.

Bertrand_Russell

Anarchism has the advantage as regards liberty, Socialism as regards the inducement to work.  Can we not find a method of combining these two advantages?  It seems to me that we can. […] Stated in more familiar terms, the plan we are advocating amounts essentially to this: that a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not, and that a larger income – as much larger as might be warranted by the total amount of commodities produced – should be given to those who are willing to engage in some work which the community recognizes as useful…When education is finished, no one should be compelled to work, and those who choose not to work should receive a bare livelihood and be left completely free.”

Milner’s State Bonus

In the same year, the young engineer, Quaker and Labour Party member, Dennis Milner (1892-1956), published jointly with his wife Mabel a short pamphlet entitled Scheme for a State Bonus (1918). What they argued for, using an eclectic series of arguments, was the introduction of an income paid unconditionally on a weekly basis to all citizens of the United Kingdom. Pitched at 20% of GDP per capita, the “State bonus” should make it possible to solve the problem of poverty, particularly acute in the aftermath of the war.  As everyone has a moral right to means of subsistence, any obligation to work enforced through the threat of a withdrawal of these means is ruled out. Milner subsequently elaborated the proposal in a book published by a respectable publisher under the title Higher Production by a Bonus on National Output. Many of the arguments that played a central role in later discussions can be found in this book — from the unemployment trap to labour market flexibility, from low rates of take up to the ideal complement of profit sharing, but the emphasis is on the “productivist” case: the state bonus can even be vindicated on grounds of efficiency alone. Milner’s proposal was enthusiastically backed by fellow Quaker Bertram Pickard, supported by the short-lived State Bonus League — under whose banner Milner took part in a national election —, discussed at the 1920 British Labour Party conference and definitively rejected the following year.

Major Douglas and the Social Credit movement

It did not take long, however, for another English engineer, Clifford H (“Major”) Douglas (1879-1952), to take up the idea again with significantly greater impact. Douglas was struck by how productive British industry had become after World War I and began to wonder about the risks of overproduction. How could a population impoverished by four years of war consume the goods available in abundance, when banks were reticent to give them credit and their purchasing power was rising only very slowly?  To solve this problem, Douglas (1924) proposed in a series of lectures and writings, often quite confused, the introduction of “social credit” mechanisms, one of which consisted in paying all households a monthly “national dividend”.  The social credit movement enjoyed varying fortunes. It failed to establish itself in the United Kingdom but attracted many supporters in Canada, where a Social Credit Party governed the province of Alberta from 1935 to 1971, although it rapidly dropped the idea of introducing a national dividend.

Cole and Meade on social dividend

While the popularity of the Social Credit movement was first swelling and next shrinking in broad layers of the British population, the idea of a universal basic income was gaining ground in a small circle of intellectuals close to the British Labour Party. Prominent among them was the economist George D.H. Cole (1889-1959), the first holder of Oxford’s Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory (later held by Isaiah Berlin, Charles Taylor and G.A. Cohen). In several books, he resolutely defended what he was the first to call a “social dividend” (in Principles of Economic Planning, 1935):  “Current productive power is, in effect, a joint result of current effort and of the social heritage of inventiveness and skill incorporated in the stage of advancement and education reached in the arts of production; and it has always appeared to me only right that all the citizens should share in the yield of this common heritage, and that only the balance of the product after this allocation should be distributed in the form of rewards for, and incentives to, current service in production.”

james-meade

James Meade

Politically less active, but with a far wider international reputation than Cole, another Oxford economist, the Nobel Laureate James Meade (1907-1995), defended the “social dividend” with even greater tenacity. The idea of a social dividend is present in his Outline of an Economic Policy for a Labour Government (1935) and in several other early writings as a central ingredient of a just and efficient economy. And it was to become a crucial component of the Agathotopia project, to which he devoted his last writings (from Agathotopia in 1989 to Full Employment Regained? in1995): partnerships between capital and labour and a social dividend funded by public assets are there offered together as a solution to the problems of unemployment and poverty.

It is against the background of this inter-war discussion that the liberal peer Juliet Rhys-Williams proposed a “new social contract” (in Something to Look Forward To, 1943), whose central element consisted in a Basic Income. Universal, but not quite unconditional, as it made availability for work a necessary counterpart for the uniform grant. Payment of the grant is suspended during strikes, for example. However, it was the alternative proposal for a national minimum income (associated with a broader program of unified national child benefit and social insurance) made in 1942 by another liberal peer, William Beveridge, director of the London School of Economics, that prevailed in Britain — and soon started spreading elsewhere in Europe —, thus relegating UBI-type proposals to the fringe of the UK’s policy-relevant debate.

5. Short-lived effervescence: the United States in the 1960s

Three American approaches to the guaranteed minimum

It is in the turbulent America of the 1960s, at the peak of the civic rights movement, that a real debate on Universal Basic Income resurfaced, with three main sources of inspiration. Firstly, Robert Theobald (1929-1999) and his Ad Hoc Committee on the Triple Revolution (1964) defended in various publications a vaguely specified guaranteed minimum income on grounds reminiscent of Douglas, such as the belief that “automation is rendering work for pay obsolete, and that government handouts are the only way to give the public the means to buy the immense bounty produced by automatons”.

Secondly, in his popular Capitalism and Freedom (1962), the American economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman (1912-2006) proposed a radical simplification of the American Welfare State through the introduction of what he there called a “negative income tax”. Friedman’s proposal of a linear negative income tax would fully integrate the income tax and transfer systems. It was offered as a simple and radical alternative to the patchwork of existing social welfare schemes. And it was itself meant as a transitional stage on the way to an ideal, transfer-free capitalist society. (For Friedman’s own account of where he got the idea from and relevant references, see the Suplicy-Friedman exchange in BIEN NewsFlash 3, May 2000.)

james-tobin

Finally, and most importantly, James Tobin (1918-2002), John Kenneth Galbraith (1908-2006) and other liberal economists (in the American sense of “liberal”) started defending in a series of articles the idea of a guaranteed minimum income more general, more generous and less dependency-creating than the existing assistance programs. James Tobin, Joseph Pechman and Peter Miezkowski published the first technical analysis of negative income tax schemes in 1967, where they came out in favor of a variant involving an automatic payment to all citizens – a genuine UBI which Joseph Pechman proposed calling “demogrant”. In contrast with Friedman’s proposal, Tobin’s demogrant scheme was not meant to replace the whole system of social assistance and insurance schemes — let alone to help extinguish the welfare state altogether —, but only to reconfigure its lower component so as to make it a more efficient and work-friendlier instrument for raising the incomes of the poor. Under Tobin’s proposal, more generous than Friedman’s and more precise than Theobald’s, each household was to be granted a basic credit at a level varying with family composition, which each family could supplement with earnings and other income taxed at a uniform rate. (For relevant references and Tobin’s own account of how his demogrant proposal evolved, see the Suplicy-Tobin exchange in BIEN NewsFlash 11, September 2001)

Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan and McGovern’s demogrant proposal

In this lively and promising context, a petition was organized in the Spring of 1968 calling for the US Congress “to adopt this year a system of income guarantees and supplements”. It was supported by James Tobin, Paul Samuelson, John Kenneth Galbraith and over one thousand more economists, though not by Milton Friedman. In a context in which dependence on the existing means-tested welfare system was increasing dramatically, this petition contributed to creating a climate in which the administration felt it had to move ahead. This led to the Family Assistance Plan (FAP), an ambitious social welfare program prepared by the Democrat senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (1927-2003) on behalf of Republican President Richard Nixon’s administration. The FAP provided for the abolition of the aid program targeting poor families (AFDC) and incorporated a guaranteed income with financial supplements for workers which came close to a negative income tax scheme except for its not being obligation-free. It was publicly presented by President Nixon in August 1969, adopted in April 1970 by a large majority in the US House of Representatives, rejected by the relevant Commission of the US Senate in November 1970, and definitively rejected in 1972 despite several amendments meant to assuage the opposition, owing to a coalition between those who found it too timid and those who found it too bold.

A more ambitious “demogrant” plan was included on James Tobin’s advice in democrat George McGovern’s platform for the 1972 presidential election, but dropped after the Democratic Party primaries, in August 1972. Combined with McGovern’s defeat by Nixon in November 1972, the beginning of the Watergate affair in March 1973 and Nixon’s resignation in November 1974, the defeat of the FAP in the Senate marked the end of the short but strong appearance of UBI-type ideas in the US debate. The discussion continued however in a more academic vein, on the basis of five large-scale experiments with negative income tax schemes (four in the USA and one in Canada) and controversies over the results.

6. New departure: North-Western Europe in the 1980s

Debates in Denmark and the Netherlands

Towards the end of the 1970s, while the demogrant debate was virtually forgotten in the United States, a debate on Basic Income started up from scratch in a number of European countries, in near total ignorance of previous discussions, whether in Europe or in America. Thus, in Denmark, three academics defended a UBI proposal by the name of “citizen’s wage” in a national best-seller later translated into English under the title Revolt from the Center (1978). But it is above all in the Netherlands that the new European discussion on UBI took off. The first voice to be heard in this discussion was that of Jan Pieter Kuiper, a professor of social medicine at the Free University of Amsterdam. He was struck by how sick some people could make themselves by working too much while others were getting sick because they could not find work. In an article published in 1976, he therefore recommended uncoupling employment and income as a way of countering the de-humanizing nature of paid employment: only a decent “guaranteed income”, as he called it, would enable people to develop independently and autonomously. In 1977, the small radical party PPR (Politieke Partij Radicalen), grown out of the left of the Dutch Christian-democratic party, became the first European political party with parliamentary representation to officially include an unconditional basic income (basisinkomen) in its electoral program. The movement grew quite rapidly, thanks to the involvement of the food sector trade union Voedingsbond, a component of the main Trade Union Confederation FNV. With its exceptionally high proportion of women and part-time workers among its members and with a woman as its leader, the Voedingsbond played a major role in the Dutch debate throughout the 1980s. It initiated a series of publications and actions defending an unconditional basic income combined with a significant reduction in working time and hosted the Dutch basic uncome association on its premises. In 1985, the Dutch discussion reached a first climax when the prestigious Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) created a sensation by publishing a report in which it recommended unambiguously the introduction of a so-called “Partial Basic Income”. Such a artial basic income is a genuine unconditional basic income, but at a level insufficient to cover the needs of a single person and hence not meant to replace entirely the existing conditional minimum income system.

Developments in Britain, Germany and France

Around the same time, the debate began to take shape in other countries too, albeit more discretely.  In 1984, a group of academics and activists gathered around Bill Jordan and Hermione Parker under the auspices of the National Council for Voluntary Organizations formed the Basic Income Research Group (BIRG) – which was to become in 1998 the Citizen’s Income Trust. Despite the consistent support of independent minds such as the assistant editor of the Financial Times Samuel Brittan and the sympathy shown for the idea by the liberal-democrat party, the basic income idea did not manage to reach mainstream politics.

In Germany, Thomas Schmid, an eco-libertarian from Berlin, got the discussion going with a collection of essays entitled Befreing von falscher Arbeit (1984). Collective volumes emanating from the green movement developed this first initiative (Das garantierte Grundeinkommen,1986; Umbau des Sozialstaats, 1987). At the same time, Joachim Mitschke professor of public finance at the University of Frankfurt, started advocating a citizen’s income (Bürgergeld) administered in the form of a negative income tax.

In France, the debate got off the ground more slowly. The influential left-wing social thinker André Gorz (1923-2007) was attracted by the idea but defended a life-long income coupled to a universal social service of 20,000 hours (Les Chemins du paradis,1985) before endorsing much later the idea of an unconditional basic income (Misères du présentrichesse du possible, 1997). In a very different vein, the economist Yoland Bresson (L’Après-salariat, 1984), self-described as a “left Gaullist” economist, offered a convoluted argument for a universal ”existence income” supposed to be pitched at a level objectively determined by the “value of time”.

The founding meeting of BIEN in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium), 1986. From left to right on stage: Riccardo Petrella, Greetje Lubbi, Anne Miller, Nic Douben, Philippe Van Parijs, Claus Offe, Bill Jordan.

The founding meeting of BIEN in Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium), 1986. From left to right on stage: Riccardo Petrella (European Commission), Greetje Lubbi (Food workers Union FNV, Netherlands), Anne Miller (Heriot-Watt University, Scotland), Nic Douben (Scientific Council for Government Policy, Netherlands), Philippe Van Parijs (University of Louvain, Belgium), Claus Offe (University of Bremen, Germany), Bill Jordan (University of Exeter, England).

The birth and expansion of BIEN

These modest national debates emerged independently from one another and the intellectual contributions that fed them were unaware of most of the history of the idea, if not the whole of it. However, they gradually came into contact with one another thanks to the creation of BIEN, on the occasion of the “first international conference on Basic Income” held in the university town of Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium) in September 1986. Pleasantly surprised to discover how many people were interested in an idea they thought they were almost alone in defending, the participants decided to set up the Basic Income European Network (BIEN), which published a regular newsletter and organized conferences every two years.

The birth of similar networks in the United States, South America and South Africa, the intensification of contacts with pre-existing networks in Australia and New Zealand, and the presence of an increasing number of non-Europeans at the BIEN conferences, led BIEN to re-interpret its acronym as the Basic Income Earth Network at its 10th congress, held in Barcelona in September 2004. The first congress outside Europe of the newly created worldwide network was held at the University of Cape Town (South Africa) in October 2006. A short history of BIEN can be found elsewhere on this website.

Modest but real: Alaska’s dividends

The introduction and development of the only genuine universal basic income system in existence to this day took place a long way from these intellectual debates. In the mid 1970s, Jay Hammond, the Republican governor of the state of Alaska (United States) was concerned that the huge wealth generated by oil mining in Prudhoe Bay, the largest oilfield in North America, would only benefit the current population of the state. He suggested setting up a permanent fund to ensure that this wealth would be preserved, through investment of part of the oil revenues. In 1976, the Alaska Permanent Fund was created by an amendment to the State Constitution. In order to get the Alaskan population interested in its growth and continuity, Governor Hammond conceived of the annual payment of a dividend to all residents, in proportion to their number of years of residence. Brought before the United States Supreme Court on grounds of discrimination against immigrants from other states, the proposal was declared inconsistent with the “equal protection clause”, the fourteenth amendment of the Federal Constitution. It was then amended in order to overcome this objection and transformed into a genuine unconditional basic income.

Since the program was first implemented in 1982, everyone who has been officially resident in Alaska for at least six months has received a uniform dividend every year, whatever their age and number of years of residence in the State. This dividend corresponds to part of the average interest earned by the permanent fund over the previous five years. The fund was initially invested exclusively in the Alaskan economy, but later became an international portfolio, thus enabling the distribution of the dividend to cushion fluctuations in the local economic situation instead of amplifying them. The level of the dividend has been fluctuating from year to year in lagged response to fluctuations of the stock market.  Alaska’s oil dividend scheme has repeatedly been proposed for other parts of the world, but still remains unique. Its being rooted in an equal right to the value of natural resources is reminiscent of theearliest justifications for an unconditional basic income by Paine and Spence, Fourier and Charlier. But its connection with the extraction of non renewable resources makes it a very imperfect model for the future.

Philippe Van Parijs

References

  • This short overview of the history of the idea of Basic Income is largely based on chapters 3 and 4 of Philippe Van Parijs & Yannick Vanderborght, Basic Income. A radical proposal for a free society and a sane economy (Harvard University Press 2017 (paperback 2019, also published in Italian, Spanish, Korean, French, Russian and Chinese).
  • A more comprehensive account of the history of Basic Income, with special emphasis on the British contributions, can be found in  Malcolm Torry, Basic Income: A History, Edward Elgar, 2021.
  • Our knowledge of the earliest appearances of the idea of Basic Income is greatly indebted to research by Walter Van Trier (Everyone a King, 1995) and by John Cunliffe and Guido Erreygers (The Origins of Universal Grants. An Anthology of Historical Writings on Basic Capital and Basic Income, Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).
  • The history and prospects of the Alaskan dividend scheme are discussed in depth in Widerquist, Karl and Michael Howard, eds. Alaska’s Permanent Fund Dividend, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.