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 987 articles.

Karl Widerquist is a Professor of political philosophy at Georgetown University-Qatar, 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 a member of the BIEN EC for 14 years. 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. 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 "the Prehistory of Private Property (Edinburgh University Press 2020, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) , "A Critical Analysis of Basic Income Experiments" (Palgrave Macmillan 2018), "Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy" (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by Grant S. McCall) and "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 (https://basicincome.org/news/2016/12/bien-profiles-karl-widerquist-co-chair/). He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for "Basic Income News."