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One could be forgiven for thinking that guaranteed income, the direct provision of government cash for everyone’s basic living expenses, is a new idea.[1] A slew of tech moguls, including Tesla’s Elon Musk, Y Combinator’s Sam Altman and Facebook founder (and rumored future presidential candidate) Mark Zuckerberg, have recently endorsed some version of the policy. And they have an audience at the highest levels of the Democratic Party. In an interview for Wired, Barack Obama suggested he was open to a guaranteed income as a solution to the widespread automation of labor. Hillary Clinton wrote in her campaign memoir What Happened that she was “fascinated” by basic-income policy and wanted to include it in her presidential platform. Unfortunately, she just “couldn’t make the numbers work.”

If we look past Washington’s interminable partisan standoffs, getting the numbers to work might appear to be the only obstacle in basic income’s way. After all, the policy also piques the interest of conservative thought leaders. The Koch-funded Cato Institute has published a series of essays on its merits and drawbacks, and the American Enterprise Institute’s Charles Murray penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed promoting it in 2016, following up on an initial proposal he had outlined in his 2006 book In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State.

Yet American interest in guaranteed income is at least fifty years old. In the 1960s the policy gathered momentum in much the same way as is happening today, beginning as the provocative thought experiment of utopian futurists and libertarians and finally becoming a bill championed by Republican President Richard Nixon and passed by a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives. This history has aroused intense interest over the past year or so, thanks in no small part to its prominent portrayal in Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists and Philippe Van Parijs and Yannick Vanderborght’s Basic Income. Both books argue that the near-success of Nixon’s plan has much to teach us about the broad appeal and political feasibility of a guaranteed-income policy.

But the plan’s ultimate failure also has something to teach us. In Nixon’s time, the strange bedfellows arguing for basic income largely deferred the question of its ethical (as opposed to its material or political) justification. Although this made strategic sense at certain points in the process, their reluctance to speak to that question was likely related to their inability to finally push the policy into law. For those of us wishing to make a compelling case for a universal basic income in the 21st century, the history suggests a need to tackle a central question from the beginning: Just what is basic income for?

Among American intellectuals, the first major guaranteed-income proposal came from the University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. In his libertarian jeremiad Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Friedman advocated for a guaranteed income for every American taxpayer.[2] This was the only sort of welfare program, he argued, that would honor an individual’s “freedom to make the most of his capacities and opportunities according to his own lights.”

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    Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. This essay uses the terms “guaranteed income” and “basic income” interchangeably to denote any policy that provides a regular, substantial income to citizens on a universal or nearly-universal basis. This means the terms are inclusive of policies as disparate as Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (which applied only to families with children, was means-tested, and included work requirements) and Philippe Van Parijs’s and Yannick Vanderboght’s “universal basic income” (which would apply to all individuals, would not be means-tested, and would not include work requirements or other obligations).
  2. The mechanism he proposes to achieve this is a negative income tax: below a certain earnings threshold, taxpayers would simply have the amount their earnings fell short of the threshold taxed at negative rates, meaning they would receive cash back and would be guaranteed a certain floor of income even if they did not earn any money otherwise.
  3. The government’s flagship welfare program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), was created during the Great Depression to allow widowed white mothers to provide for the basic needs of their families, and three decades later the program continued to serve primarily households headed by single mothers. Less than a third of the nation’s poor received any AFDC benefits at all.
  4. Families with other income sources would receive diminishing government payments until their work-related income reached about $25,000 in today’s dollars. The plan was tiered so that, even as government payments decreased while employment-related income rose, the total amount of family income would always increase as additional earnings were secured through employment. When Nixon incessantly touted the plan’s “work incentives”—inventing the term “workfare” in the process—this is what he was referring to: the plan was designed to make it more profitable for a family to get its income from work than from the government. (At the urging of conservatives, Nixon did ultimately include work requirements, rather than only incentives, for eligible beneficiaries.)
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