The indestructible idea of the basic income: is this the only policy proposal Tom Paine, Huey Long, Milton Friedman, Timothy Leary, and Sam Altman can agree on?

Author:Walker, Jesse
 
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ANDY STERN IS a former president of the Service Employees International Union. Charles Murray may be America's most prominent right-wing critic of the welfare state. So when they appeared onstage together in Washington, D.C., last fall to discuss the basic income--the idea of keeping people out of poverty by giving them regular unconditional cash payments--the most striking thing about the event was that they kept agreeing with each other.

It isn't necessarily surprising that Stern and Murray both back some version of the concept. It has supporters across the political spectrum, from Silicon Valley capitalists to academic communists. But this diverse support leads naturally to diverse versions of the proposal, not all of which are compatible with one another. Some people want to means-test the checks so that only Americans below a certain income threshold receive them; others want a fully universal program, given without exceptions. Some want to replace the existing welfare state; others want to tack a basic income onto it. There have been tons of suggestions for how to fund the payments and for how big they should be. When it comes to the basic income, superficial agreement is common but actual convergence can be fleeting.

In Stern's case, the central issue driving his interest in the idea is the turmoil he expects automation to bring to the economy. In the future, he and Lee Kravitz predict in their 2016 book Raising the Floor, tens of millions of jobs will disappear, leaving much of the country stuck with work that is "contingent, part-time, and driven largely by people's own motivation, creativity, and the ability to make a job out of 'nothing.'" A basic income, he hopes, would bring some economic security to their lives.

Read Murray's first detailed pitch for a guaranteed income, the 2006 book In Our Hands, and you won't see anything like that. Its chief concern is shifting power from government bureaucracies to civil society. It doesn't just propose a new transfer program; it calls for repealing every other transfer program. And automation isn't a part of its argument at all.

But onstage at the Cato Institute in D.C., Murray was as worried as Stern about technological job loss, warning that "we are going to be carving out millions of white-collar jobs, because artificial intelligence, after years of being overhyped, has finally come of age." Meanwhile, Stern signaled that he was open not just to replacing welfare programs for the disadvantaged but possibly even to rethinking Social Security, provided that people still have to contribute money to some sort of retirement system and that Americans who have already paid in don't get shortchanged. He drew the line at eliminating the government's health insurance programs--but the other guy on the stage agreed that health care was different. Under Murray's plan, citizens would be required to use part of their grant to buy health insurance, and insurance companies would be required to treat the population as a single pool.

The Murray/Stern convergence comes as the basic income is enjoying a wave of interest and enthusiasm. The concept comes up in debates over everything from unemployment to climate change. Pilot programs testing various versions of the idea are in the works everywhere from Oakland to Kenya, and last year Swiss voters considered a plan to introduce a guaranteed income nationwide. (They wound up rejecting the referendum over-whelmingly, with only 23 percent voting in favor. I didn't say everyone was enthusiastic.)

This isn't the first time the basic income or an idea like it has edged its way onto the agenda. It isn't even the first time we've seemed to see an ideological convergence. This patchwork of sometimes-overlapping movements with sometimes-overlapping proposals has a history that stretches back centuries.

IT USUALLY BEGINS WITH TOM PAINE

JUST WHERE YOU pinpoint the start of that history depends on how broadly you're willing to define basic income. The idea's advocates have identified plenty of precursors to their proposals, but sometimes the connection can be a little tenuous. It's true, as they'll tell you, that in 1516 St. Thomas More suggested that society could reduce crime by "provid[ing] everyone with some means of livelihood." It's a bit of a leap from there to the plans being debated today.

But we have to start somewhere, and for two reasons 1795 is a good place to begin. That's the year Thomas Paine started to write his pamphlet Agrarian Justice. It's also the year some squires introduced a new system of relief to the English district of Speenhamland.

Agrarian Justice, which was ultimately published in 1797, posited that "the earth, in its natural, uncultivated state was... the common property of the human race." Therefore, Paine argued, each landowner "owes to the community a ground-rent" to compensate the dispossessed for their loss. From those fees, "the sum of fifteen pounds sterling" should be paid to everyone when they turn 21, with another "ten pounds per annum" paid after they've turned 50.

Eighteenth-century England already had a welfare apparatus. Under the Poor Laws, different local governments devised different systems for distinguishing the "deserving" from the "undeserving" poor, and for extracting labor from able-bodied paupers. Paine was proposing somethingelse: money for everyone just for being alive and of age, delivered as a matter of "justice, and not charity."

The squires of Speenhamland were less idealistic and more afraid. The cost of grain had skyrocketed in Britain, food riots were breaking out, and the landed classes were casting their eyes uneasily at the revolutionary violence in France. And so in May of 1795 -- just a few months before Paine began his pamphlet--the Speenhamland magistrates decided to adopt a new method of public assistance. Junking the old deserving/undeserving distinction, they would now ensure that all the poor in their village received an income, with the level of aid varying with the market price of bread.

The so-called Speenhamland system was soon adopted in other parishes. It persisted until 1834, when a royal commission declared it a failure. Parliament then adopted the New Poor Law, which required able-bodied paupers who wanted relief to be confined in tightly disciplined workhouses.

The commission's report on Speenhamland painted a picture of indolence and immorality, accusing the system of discouraging men from working and encouraging women to have children out of wedlock. The royal report also suggested that the system subsidized low wages, making it more a ceiling than a floor for poor people's incomes. Since then, several scholars have challenged the commission's conclusions, noting that its data were not collected very scientifically, that many effects attributed to the system actually preceded it, and--perhaps most notably--that the Speenhamland approach wasn't actually all that widespread. (Different districts had continued to give relief in different ways.) But those critiques are a relatively recent development. In between, the commission's conclusions influenced figures ranging from Marx to Mises.

Neither the system in Paine's pamphlet nor the system in Berkshire County was a full-fledged basic income. But between the radical calling for a new allocation of power and the insiders afraid their power would be overturned, the 1790s anticipated a lot of arguments to come.

FROM HUEY LONG TO TIMOTHY LEARY

SEVERAL SIMILAR PROPOSALS circulated in the ensuing centuries. The economist Henry George, famous for arguing that government should be funded by a single tax on land, thought that any "surplus revenue might be divided per capita." The philosopher Bertrand Russell suggested that "a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all." The engineer C.H. Douglas proposed a "national dividend" as part of his economic philosophy of "social credit." Douglas' doctrine was briefly in vogue among modernist intellectuals, with advocates ranging from the anarchist art critic Herbert Read to the fascist poet Ezra Pound.

Pound's favorite governor, the Louisiana populist Huey Long, launched a Share Our Wealth campaign during the Depression; its planks included a guaranteed annual income of $2,500 per family (and confiscatory taxes on incomes over $1 million).

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In the early '40s, the literary socialists H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw proposed a basic income of $3,200 to $4,800 a year. (When The Tuscaloosa News reported this, it presented the idea to its American...

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