The Long History of Basic Income
A recently published article on the history of the idea of basic income traces it back to the 16th century when Thomas More published his famous work Utopia. In the book, Raphael Nonsenso reports on a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time saying:
No penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it is their only way of getting food.
It would be far more to the point to provide everyone with somne means of livelihood
Since then, the idea has also been articulated and championed by Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, Friedrich A. Hayek, Bertrand Russell, Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Buckminster Fuller, and many others.
While this history of the idea and its various proponents is compelling, one thing has gone unnoticed:
the idea of basic income started with the invention of capitalism
Why? Because capitalism is the economic system that purposely strips people of their means of livelihood to compel participation in the market. From its very inception, it forced peasants and serfs off the land where they could produce their own means of livelihood, and it required them to become laborers. The contemporary admission of this same fact is rooted in the saying: “Everyone needs to have a job.” In capitalism, this is true, but having a job is a replacement for being able to produce your own means of life for yourself. Since you can’t keep the land, you need to get money so you can buy what others make.
Two Insights on Basic Income
This explains two very important things for basic income proponents to understand.
First, the reason basic income is hardly ever adopted is that capitalism needs people to participate in the market. Social security was allowed because it was assumed that at 65 years old, people are no longer capable of participating in the labor market. It was better to give them money to enable them to participate in the consumer market, than to have them simply burden laborers and thereby limit consumption. Capitalist elites need people in the market more than anything, so they won’t support ideas that essentially help remove people from the market.
Second, when we no longer have capitalism, we will no longer need basic income. The antithesis of capitalism is not Marxism or socialism; it is a postcapitalist society in which people produce their own livelihoods at the household level. It will be primarily digital production, but it will be a means of livelihood. If livelihood can be obtained without money, then clearly there is no need to participate in the market, and no need for basic income. The means of livelihood mentioned by Nonsenso in More’s book are already provided.
When Will We Get Basic Income?
Basic income is a critical path for transitioning to postcapitalism, but it is not postcapitalist in and of itself. Basic income will arise when the general population finds itself in a similar position to that of 1930s elderly—unable to participate in the labor market and unable to obtain the means to livelihood any other legitimate way. Without labor, they will have no money, and without money, they will not be able to buy and consume. At this point, capitalist elites will seek a way to secure the market for their goods, and they will demand basic income for people. It won’t be a matter of morals and kindness; it will be a matter of the self-preservation of their privilege. Basic income will disappear when market participation becomes optional and obsolete.