The Universal Basic Income's Past and Future in Brief

The Universal Basic Income's Past and Future in Brief

In 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote, "I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective - the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income." He was right. It is obvious that the simplest solution to poverty is a direct, unconditional, universal basic income paid out equally to all citizens. Such a payment prevents any given citizen's income from falling below that point. And it was widely discussed at the time. But this was not the first time that it had been so publicly popular.

In 1797, Thomas Paine, the American revolutionary pampleteer, recommended a universal basic income of something around three quarters of the average income of the time in the pamplhet Agrarian Justice. This amount would have been sufficient to prevent starvation and deprivation, but would not have allowed people to live what we would think of as the good life, and would have been crushingly expensive for his time. But he lived in a much poorer time, a time when every able bodied man could work, and had to work, or else in the streets. Our time is different.

We do not, in our modern world, allow people to die of starvation. Of thirst. Of exposure. But likewise, we do not need the services of every able bodied man and woman. And in the future we will need fewer and fewer, due to the marvelous advances of robotics and digital automation. Luckily, giving every able bodied citizen a sufficient amount to guarantee that they can live without hunger, thirst, exposure, and even the desperation and humiliation of poverty, is not only within our financial and economic capacity, but already within our budgets. Not just without spending more, but while spending considerably less.

The mind rebels at that statement. Revolts against the possibility of such a utopian, paradisical program as giving everyone enough money to pay for the necessities of life, and pay such an amount out to every citizen, regardless of employment, unemployment, or capacity to fill out forms. How can it be done? By writing checks. The American Federal government already spends nearly two trillion dollars every year on social welfare. (This figure does not include education or health care spending.) Divide that among the citizens and everyone gets around five thousand five hundred dollars a year, without strings. Eleven thousand for each couple. Twenty two thousand for a family with two children.

And how do we then do it for less? If we assign the income from the taxes that currently support all these programs directly to these payouts and vary the payouts according to the taxes brought in, they will stop growing automatically. They will grow along economic expansion, literally and directly keeping place with inflation or deflation, rising and falling with the economic tide. And that costs less than our existing slight deficit spending on that matter.

Past generations could not afford this luxury, while proclaiming it a moral necessity. It remains a moral necessity, but we cannot afford the luxury of not acting. The damage caused to the growing permanently unemployed and underemployed and by their misery to our society has become too great to ignore.