May 31, 2017

20 Supporters of Universal Basic Income Throughout History

By Jeremy Williams /
20 Supporters of Universal Basic Income Throughout History

The basic guaranteed income is one of those ideas, like land value taxation or the Tobin tax, that circles endlessly around. There are times when it’s obscure, and times when it’s being talked about again. It’s currently in the ascendant, and I suspect that it won’t be long before a country bites the bullet and puts a basic national income (BNI) or citizen’s income in place.

To illustrate the broad and diverse support for a basic income, here are twenty people who have supported it over the ages. Not all of them stand for the BNI as currently understood, but their ideas have all fed into the debate in one form or another and give weight to the arguments for a guaranteed minimum income.

Pericles – let’s start with the old school, and Pericles and Ephialtes. They came to power in Athens in 461 BC with plans for payments to citizens in return for public duties such as jury duty or public service.

Sir Thomas More – coined the word Utopia in 1516 with his fictional account of an ideal island. The Utopia he describes included a basic income, and nobody ever needed to steal.

Thomas Paine – this revolutionary and founding father of the United States argued for grants to young people and the elderly.

Dennis and Mabel Milner – a number of Quaker activists called for the BNI. The best known are this husband and wife team who were influential in calling for a new settlement after the First World War.

Lady Juliet Rhys-Williams – a Liberal Party campaigner and a member of the Beveridge Committee, the group that shaped Britain’s welfare state in 1942. Had she had won the argument, we might have had a basic income instead.

Bertrand Russell – the philosopher and Nobel laureate argued that a basic income combined the best of socialism and anarchism.

Martin Luther King – argued in his last book that “the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income”.

J K Galbraith – “We need to consider the one prompt and effective solution for poverty,” argued the economist, “which is to provide everyone with a minimum income.”

Milton Friedman – not the same thing as a BNI but similar, the American economist and godfather of neoliberalism was an advocate of the negative income tax.

Desmond Tutu – South Africa has trialed guaranteed incomes, and the social activist and bishop Desmond Tutu has campaigned for it.

Margaret Mead – the influential anthropologist and cultural commentator believed that a guaranteed income “would provide dignity for every citizen and choice for every citizen”.

Richard Nixon – not the only president to consider it, but Nixon got closer than most with his Family Assistance Plan, before it was killed by Democrats in the Senate.

Marshall McLuhan – in his writing about technology, Marshall McLuhan debated the need for a guaranteed income to protect people from job losses from automation.

Elon Musk – along similar lines, the pioneering technologist and businessman has come to the conclusion that the BNI is the best way to deal with robots taking human jobs.

Gary Johnson – while he didn’t campaign on it, the libertarian candidate in the 2016 US election has spoken positively about the idea as a small government alternative to welfare.

Tim Berners-Lee – “I think a basic income is one of the ways of addressing massive global inequality,” says the inventor of the internet.

James Hansen – NASA’s leading climate expert suggests putting a tax on fossil fuels and distributing it equally as a dividend or basic income.

Caroline Lucas – co-leader of the Green Party and Britain’s most useful MP, Caroline Lucas has long been a champion of the idea, and suggests the basic income “could be the big answer that everyone’s looking for”.

Stephen Hawking – the legendary physicist believes that technological change and inequality may be best addressed through a basic income.

Nicola Sturgeon – under her leadership the Scottish National Party has endorsed the BNI. If Scotland were to go independent, it may well choose this as part of its own welfare system.

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