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Was Thomas Paine a Proponent of Universal Basic Income? Short answer: yes.

Thomas Paine

I was recently asked whether the statement “Thomas Paine was a proponent of Universal Basic Income” is true. Although that statement is slightly controversial, it is true. Let me explain:

  1. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is a contested concept. Different people within the UBI movement use the term differently. The policy Paine advocates in “Agrarian Justice” fits most of the popular definitions of UBI but not narrowest one.
  2. The received definition of UBI (used by the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) and the U.S. Basic Income Guarantee Network (USBIG)) includes five characteristics: a regular, individual, universal, and unconditional cash payment. Paine’s policy is only a regular payment for people who live beyond 50. So, it is a bit of a judgment call whether it fits BIEN’s definition. But the BIEN definition has usually been understood to imply that the income is life-long, and some leaders of BIEN have expressed interest in clarifying that it should be lifelong. For these reasons, you might hear someone denying that Paine supported UBI, but to say that would be to apply the narrowest definition of UBI as if it were the only definition in popular use today, and it would be inaccurate to do so.
  3. The difference between the policy Paine advocated and the narrowest definition of UBI is small and almost a technicality compared to the similarities. Therefore, it is often not worth the time and effort to explain the difference between Paine’s policy and the narrowest definition of UBI.
  4. The only missing characteristic of the narrowest definition of UBI is that the income should be life-long. In that sense, Andrew Yang’s proposal also fails to meet the narrowest definition of UBI.
  5. The oldest-know proposal that fits the narrowest definition of UBI was written by a man named Thomas Spence, who was writing a sympathetic response to Paine—showing a way to take the idea a little farther. Paine, as far as I know, never responded to that proposal. He might well have viewed it positively.
  6. Many people who are widely accepted as leading advocates of UBI not necessarily advocate it under the narrowest definition of it. Martin Luther King and Milton Friedman are prominent examples.
  7. Paine is almost universally recognized as a founder of the UBI movement even by people who prefer the version the narrow definition.
  8. The size of the payments that Paine suggested were very large for the time. The initial payment of 15 pounds that people were supposed to receive when they came of age, Paine argued, would be enough for them to by land and become farmers, thereby achieving two central goals of many members of the UBI movement: to compensate people for the fact that wealthy people own all the resources and to give them the power to say no to unacceptable employment offers.
  9. Paine supported the policy he described in Agrarian Justice for the same reasons that more radical UBI proponents support UBI. His use of these arguments implies that he would be sympathetic to proposals convert his idea to life-long income.
  10. Therefore, if he were alive today, Paine would be recognized not only as a UBI supporter, but as one of the more radical UBI supporters. It is accurate to say he’s a UBI supporter, and even inaccurate to suggest otherwise without explaining the technicality of that suggestion.

About Karl Widerquist

Karl Widerquist has written 981 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 ( More information about him is available on his BIEN profile and on Wikipedia. He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

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.



    Another PAINE in the ass for serious UBI proponents

    This posting by Widerquist is something I really have to respond to. It sums up all that has been wrong with the BIEN approach to a guaranteed Income scheme. I have been advocating for such for well before BIEN existed.

    As to (1), UBI is a contested concept because the BIEN group has started a trend of leaving it open to contestation. It was not defined narrowly enough. This has created huge problems.

    (2) Paine did indeed only advocate an old age pension. He lived in the eighteenth century. The BI concept was not even comprehensible back then. People like Thomas Moore, JS Mill, and Bertrand Russell were only talking about forms of social welfare.

    The idea of what is now called UBI goes back no farther than the 1960s. The earliest expression is with Robert Theobald and the “committee on the triple crisis”. It was first defined coherently by Brian Tobin. I do not understand this compulsion to try to tie it further back in time.

    I have not heard of this Thomas Spence (5) before. He might have had the “narrow” UBI. However, in history you will find somebody who has proposed just about every modern idea, often just inadvertently, while trying to deal with some other problem. UBI-like proposals were really not a thing back in the pre-contemporary era and I do not see how trying to find them there adds anything to discussion of them in the here and now.

    The title of Paine’s work was “agrarian justice”. It is from back when the world was still primarily agrarian. To say he would have supported a modern day proposal is spinning something up from nothing. Maybe he would have, maybe not. He is two centuries dead.

    The only reason so many people have the idea of Paine as a founder of a modern UBI movement (7) is that this media machine which Widerquist partly created keeps repeating this. It is an example of how the whole tendency that developed from BIEN have been such bad advocates of the Basic idea.

    Further example is this endless cranking about how Milton Friedman was a proponent of a UBI. (6) Why do that? First of all, the whole idea behind the negative income tax, which was started by Friedman, is not a UB but a variation on social welfare; i.e. maintenance and control of a section of the population.

    Friedman is a demon to precisely the kind of people who need to be won over if a real UBI is going to be accepted. He is known as the founder of the vicious austerian policies which have caused so much harm in contemporary times.

    Yet in my own province of Ontario in Canada the NIT advocates have pretty much crowded out all other discussion of UBI. It is hard to talk about it here without being tagged as a “liberal”, which is coming to have a pejorative sense among anyone even moderately progressive. This makes it very hard to get discussion going about more authentic models of a UBI.

    This is why it would be very good if BIEN and BICN disappeared up their collective asses. But since they are not likely to do so any time soon, we must wait for the development of a true social progressive movement for a UBI. I see some stirrings of this happening.

    When we get the basic idea of a basic income in what Widerquist calls a “strict definition”, anchored into a revived and real left movement against oligarchy, then it becomes a viable prospect. That will take awhile yet.

    But UBI is still a very new idea. The founders back in the 1960s made a lot of mistakes which are still being recognized and moved on from. The idea will mature and be recognized as an indispensable piece of the puzzle of a post oligarchic world.

    What is needed right now is a new organization to frame it that way, in a more disciplined and “narrow” way. Above all, to not go digging in the past for something which really is not there, in the idea that this validates an idea in the present context.

    The BIEN group which Widerquist has helped to shape may be seen was a disaster for an income guarantee movement, or as a phase which must be gone through as the concept matures.

    So, this maturity will require that the concept become strictly defined. It will probably need a new name. People must not be allowed to get away with using that name to talk about things which are not within its definition. The concept must be closely defined and no longer “contested”. This means that people like Widerquist stop contesting it.

    Finally, about definitions; I wonder how the condition “adequate”, as in adequate to live on, came to be dropped from the “official” BIEN definition of the concept? It is the single most important condition for UBI, which makes little sense without it.

  • Karl, all those big names you cite made a big deal about public recovery of “rent”. Rent, land, location, resources, not to mention government-granted privilege, are huge blindspots to most moderns, even wanna-be reformers. BIGists are no exception, despite the fact that rents could fund a Citizen’s Dividend that would dwarf any BI proposal, easily. Rent-flows in the economy total more than wages and interests combined. In practice, the only extra incomes paid to nearly everyone are not the temporary BIG experiments (likely not sustainable). Rather, they are rent-shares, like the Alaska oil dividend, the Aspen CO housing assistance, the Singapore surplus dividend. Why are BIGists indifferent to funding? I guess because none come from business but instead enjoy careers funded by income transfers. To succeed in America, BIGists could do little better than to abandon transfers and embrace the sharing of what’s already ours–the socially-generated value of locations and government favors like corporate charters. Lose the focus on poverty, extol the reality of abundance. And win in our lifetimes.

  • Andrew Middleton

    When the scarcity principle is used within a monetary system then the human instinct is brought down to the primal instinct for survival, the scarcity principle needs to be removed from a monetary system too create a more civilised system.
    There is no real need for money to have any inbuilt value other than being the lubricant that helps monetary bubbles to keep flowing in a circular fashion.
    Digital money should be unlimited in its creation, we should have access to money as and when needed to pay our bills and for anything we need it for, this abundance of money would change the way humans think because there would be no reason to try to amass or horde money anymore as it would be on tap so to speak. Let’s remember that money would be the lubricant to keep the system flowing. A monetary system without scarcity would mean inflation would become non existent as why would one need to put prices up if money was on tap. If we are to have a monetary system then it needs to evolve so we can better utilise it for human evolution to a truly civilised level for all life. No more fighting over money just team cooperation in creating a better future for all. Maybe this could be the bridge to a resource based economy as when we realise that all the things we do could be done for free then we truly evolve.

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