Opinion; The Independentarian


This essay was originally published in the USBIG NewsFlash in April 2007.


Republican Presidential Candidate Tommy Thompson has endorsed BIG—at least in a foreign country. On his campaign website, the former Wisconsin Governor calls himself “the reliable conservative in the 2008 presidential race.” The first reason he gives is, “Tommy Thompson is the father of welfare reform.” Thompson has a good claim to that title. Since 1996, welfare reform, also known as “workfare,” replaced conditional cash support for single mothers with work requirements, sometimes for less than minimum wage, without providing daycare. The plan was modeled on an earlier Wisconsin program initiated by then-governor Thompson. Workfare is usually motivated by the belief that poor people have a responsibility to take whatever jobs are offered, even if they have substantial childcare responsibilities.

Thompson is literally the last America one might expect to endorse BIG—a plan to provide unconditional cash benefits to every citizen. But Thompson has not only endorsed BIG, he has made it a major initiative in his campaign. He has discussed it in numerous interviews and speeches and at the Republican presidential debates. He hasn’t endorsed BIG for the United States but as part of his strategy to win the war in Iraq. The BIG element in Thompson’s Iraq strategy is that one-third of Iraqi government oil revenues will be reserved for a fund to provide every Iraqi with a small income guarantee modeled after the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF). USBIG Newsletter readers will recall that the APF was the initiative of another Republican Governor, Jay Hammond. It provides a small but significant income guarantee to every Alaskan resident.

Of course, both the APF and any likely Iraq proposal fall short of the goals of most BIG supporters because they are not large enough to cover the recipient’s needs—a “partial BIG” rather than a “full BIG.” But Alaska experience has show that even a partial BIG can make a great difference to the needy and sets the right precedent.

Thompson’s plan is rather far from implementation, however. To introduce it, the U.S. would have to be continuing its involvement in Iraq two years from now, when a president Thompson would take office. At that point the U.S. will have been at war for nearly six years. Even then, Thompson could only recommend the plan to the Iraqi Parliament, which is formally recognized by the U.S. government as the sovereign government of an independent country. If the whole of Thompson’s plan is adopted, United States would likely remain at war in Iraq for four more years while we find out whether the military elements of his plan work.

Thompson has not discussed extending the Alaska-style plan closer to home, nor does he seem aware of the possible conflict between the goals of an APF-style BIG and his pedigree, Workfare.

What’s the big deal if a politician in one country supports BIG in another country where he may have little influence even if elected? It show that framed in the right context, BIG can have a great appeal even to work-ethic conservatives, and it demonstrates the growing appeal of the APF precedent. The APF is so obviously successful, so popular, and so cost-effective that it appeals even to the father of workfare. Much of the motivation for workfare has been popular American resentment against people who receive direct government payments. But there is little resentment in America for people who receive property income whether or not they work and whether or not they received their property through work. The APF makes some part of Alaska’s oil revenues into part of the personal property of every Alaskan. It’s theirs; they own it. It is quite natural to infer that if it is right for every Alaskan to own a share of their oil, then perhaps every Iraqi should own a share of their oil too. But once you have endorsed that principle it is quite natural to infer that every South African should own a share of their gold. Every Botswanan should own a share of their diamonds. Every Welshman should own a share of their coal. Every Bolivian should own a share of their tin. And the full inference is that everyone should own a share of all natural resources. If we put that principle into practice, single mothers would not need workfare at all.
-Karl Widerquist (Michael Lewis contributing), New Orleans, LA, April 2007

Karl Widerquist

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 937 articles.

Karl Widerquist is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. Much of his work involves Universal Basic Income (UBI). He is a co-founder of the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG). He served as co-chair of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) for 7 years, and now serves as vice-chair. He was the Editor of the USBIG NewsFlash for 15 years and of the BIEN NewsFlash for 4 years. He is a cofounder of BIEN’s news website, Basic Income News, the main source of just-the-facts reporting on UBI worldwide. He is a cofounder and editor of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on UBI. Widerquist has published several books and many articles on UBI both in academic journals and in the popular media. He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.” Widerquist holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He has published seven books, including Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No (Palgrave Macmillan 2013). He has published more than a twenty scholarly articles and book chapters. Most Karl Widerquist’s writing is available on his “Selected Works” website (works.bepress.com/widerquist/). More information about him is available on his BIEN profile and on Wikipedia. He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

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The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.

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