Maverick Citizen


A basic income for everyone – the idea that won’t go away

A basic income for everyone – the idea that won’t go away
The core idea of paying everyone a guaranteed basic income has circulated for centuries. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A decade or so ago, universal basic income proposals drew sniffy dismissals and a roll of the eyes. Today, they’re the subject of mainstream debate, with political parties and national and city governments across the world considering the option.

The core idea of paying everyone a guaranteed basic income, though, has circulated for centuries. 

It surfaced in English social philosopher Thomas More’s 1516 novel Utopia and in Spanish humanist Juan Luis Vives’s On Assistance to the Poor a decade later. Then, towards the end of the 18th century, the American philosopher and activist Thomas Paine presented a sustained argument for a basic income payment in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice

Paine saw agricultural land as “natural property” – a commons – to which every citizen had a claim. But, attached as he was to a market-based system, he also saw an “efficiency case” for private ownership of the land. The compromise was to tax private ownership of agricultural land and distribute that revenue (he called it a “ground rent”) equally to all adults – not as charity, but as a right, since all citizens had an original claim to the privately owned land. 

Decades later, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels were polishing their Communist Manifesto in 1848, the Belgian Joseph Charlier revived Paine’s proposal. He argued that a “territorial dividend” was owed to each citizen due to the common ownership of the country’s territory.

The underlying principle – that every adult is owed the basic means for life – may strike some ears today as “radical”. But even the godfather of classical liberalism, the philosopher John Stuart Mill, was thinking along those lines. Influenced by the writings of the French socialist Charles Fourier, Mill proposed that “in the distribution, a certain minimum is first assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labour” (this was in his 1849 update of his classic text, Principles of Political Economy). 

The concept then languished, eclipsed by the rapid expansion of both industrial capitalism and the ranks of waged (and, increasingly, also organised) workers – and the rise of political movements that focused on transforming the conditions of work and even the relations of production. As the power of workers’ organisations grew and the prospects for full employment and decent wages improved, support for basic income-type arrangements tended to recede, only to resurface when conditions took a turn for worse.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Basic Income Grant — what it’s all about and what it could mean for South Africa

At the end of World War 1, the mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell proposed an income for all, and the British Labour Party and trade unions were debating calls for a basic income. In response to the Great Depression in the early 1930s, US senator Huey Long championed an annual “homestead allowance” of $5,000 for families as part of his “Share our Wealth” redistribution programme. It came to nought and the UBI idea receded as welfare systems were built in industrial capitalist countries, a process propelled by powerful trade unions and the perceived need to short-circuit the appeal of more drastic economic change.  

Basic income support: making a comeback

The idea made a comeback in the US in the 1960s amid a re-emergence of structural unemployment. President JF Kennedy’s economic advisers floated the idea of a guaranteed income in the form of a negative income tax. Popularised by Chicago School economist Milton Friedman in his 1962 book, Capitalism and Freedom, this entailed an income transfer to people earning below a specified income, with the amount varying according to a person’s level of income. 

(Photo: Wikipedia)

The malleability of the basic income concept was now in clearer view. Friedman and others on the right saw it replacing what they regarded to be a complex, intrusive and costly mosaic of welfare entitlements. 

It was during the term of US President Richard Nixon that legislation based on those ideas was drafted, but with an unexpected twist. Known as the Family Assistance Plan, the scheme would pay low-income families an annual guaranteed minimum income of $500 per adult and $300 per child, irrespective of whether the adults were working. The amount would decrease as a family’s earned income rose and would end once a specific income level was reached. 

The plan passed in the US House of Representatives. But it was snuffed out in the US Senate, ironically at the hands of Russel Long, a Democrat senator and son of the populist politician Huey Long, who had championed a basic income guarantee in the 1930s. The elder Long implacably opposed the idea of providing people with basic, unconditional economic security. 

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Basic income grant — separating the facts from the populism

In western Europe, an activist network with a footing in academia began reviving the UBI concept in the 1980s. But it was in South Africa in the early 2000s where the idea surfaced most forcefully, when a civil society campaign for a basic income grant prompted the government to set up a committee of inquiry (known as the Taylor Committee) which recommended that a small basic income payment be phased in nationally. National Treasury and the Presidency opposed the scheme as “unaffordable”, and the recommendation was rejected. Soon afterwards, though, the government began expanding South Africa’s “social grants” system.

President Richard Nixon in the Oval office in 1970. (Photo: Getty Images / National Archive / Newsmakers)

Internationally, UBI debates had grown faint – but the 2008 global financial crisis changed that. Layoffs and wage depression were followed by slow, skewed recoveries, with relatively secure employment increasingly displaced by piecemeal jobs and shift work, stripped of regulatory protection and paid poverty wages. Meanwhile, austerity policies slashed away at social programmes. 

In the US, the Occupy Movement rallied against increasing economic inequality and social vulnerability. The Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, which erupted in the context of harsh domestic austerity programmes, highlighted the potential for sudden upheaval, even in places that had seemed solidly barricaded against popular discontent. 

President JF Kennedy’s economic advisers floated the idea of a guaranteed income in the form of a negative income tax. (Photo: Keystone / Getty Images)

As countries doubled down on their austerity-based “recovery” programmes, populist movements gained traction, many of them leaning to the far-right. Business elites and their political allies grew increasingly anxious about the prospects of sustained social and political unrest. Soon, the Covid-19 pandemic was showing that the barriers separating relatively secure livelihoods from destitution were much flimsier than previously thought. In South Africa, millions more families tumbled into poverty.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “A universal basic income campaign is part of a broader, long-term project of change

Popular support for a guaranteed income grew. In South Africa, a broad coalition of grassroots organisations was reviving the demand for a UBI. Elsewhere, an Oxford University study from 2020 found that 71% of Europeans favoured the introduction of a UBI, with support spread evenly across age groups. Even in the US, with its ingrained culture of self-reliance, 45% of people polled by the Pew Research Center in 2020 supported a guaranteed income of$1,000 per month for all adult citizens.

The UBI is now a staple of public debate and policy deliberations. Driving the shift is a palpable sense that traditional sources of material security are increasingly inaccessible and unreliable in a volatile world tethered to outmoded economic models and buffeted by turmoil. DM/MC

This is the first in a series of articles by Hein Marais on ideas, arguments and counterarguments around basic income support. The next article will set the UBI against the backdrop of the crisis of waged work. Read our interview with Hein Marais here:

Universal basic income for SA trumps basic income grant – author Hein Marais” 

Hein Marais is the author of In the Balance: The Case for a Universal Basic Income in South Africa and Beyond, published by Witwatersrand University Press. The book is available in bookstores, online and as an open access download.



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