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.”
As Friedman later noted, Capitalism and Freedom was essentially ignored upon release, failing to garner a single review in a major American publication. A book-length proposal for guaranteed income released the following year, Robert Theobald’s Free Men and Free Markets (1963), was more in keeping with America’s pro-government postwar zeitgeist. Theobald argued that the market capitalism lionized by Friedman was fast becoming obsolete. Having established the raw productive capacity to meet humanity’s material needs, it was no longer necessary, in Theobald’s view, to force people into the labor market. Because firms routinely under-produced relative to their capacity, the government should instead redistribute purchasing power via a guaranteed income.
These arguments came at the very moment when mainstream economists were beginning to reckon with a growing consensus that economic growth—which at the time seemed virtually limitless in the U.S.—could not by itself guarantee a decent standard of living for every American. Existing welfare programs had not been designed to address persistent structural unemployment, which, it was thought, would confine large parts of the population to poverty regardless of economic growth.3 Against this backdrop, there didn’t seem to be much daylight between Friedman’s vision of a fairer and more efficient welfare system and Theobald’s vision of a fundamentally liberatory universal grant. As with many things in the Sixties, it seemed like America would be able to have it both ways.
This chorus quickly grew loud enough to capture the attention of the nation’s highest office, which had recently declared a “war on poverty.” In January 1966, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s economic report to Congress argued for consideration of a revenue policy that would guarantee income for every American. Johnson’s call was echoed by multiple government reports throughout that year, and by December even the conservative U.S. Chamber of Commerce had begun to take the idea seriously, convening a National Symposium on Guaranteed Income. Basic income was seen not just as a way of alleviating persistent poverty, but as a policy that could help pacify a divided nation. Johnson’s high-profile Kerner Commission, established to analyze the causes of the riots that engulfed dozens of U.S. cities in flames during the summer of 1967, called for the replacement of existing welfare with a “‘basic allowance’ to individuals and families.” Civil rights leaders Ralph Abernathy and Martin Luther King, Jr. endorsed guaranteed income as well.
At first Richard Nixon explicitly opposed a guaranteed-income plan, but a guaranteed-income proposal nevertheless emerged after his inauguration as the centerpiece of the new Republican president’s domestic agenda—a testament to the program’s sustained momentum in policymaking circles. More than a thousand university economists signed a letter of support for the policy shortly before Nixon was elected, and the new president announced the Family Assistance Plan (FAP) in August 1969. “What I am proposing,” he said in a speech outlining the plan, “is that the Federal Government build a foundation under the income of every American family with dependent children that cannot care for itself.” Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the prominent Nixon adviser (and Democrat) who initially sold the president on the policy, declared that guaranteed income was an “idea whose time has come.”
The FAP, which would have amounted to a bit over $10,000 annually (in today’s dollars) for every family of four with no other income,4 easily passed the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives, 243 to 155. Party loyalty and a conservative desire to reform the existing welfare system—because it allegedly promoted unemployment and marital breakup—persuaded many Republicans to go along with New Deal and Great Society Democrats. The Senate was considered more liberal than the House, so passage of the FAP seemed all but assured.
But the fact that Nixon’s plan sailed through the House of Representatives masked the reality that it had almost no truly enthusiastic and organized boosters. Much as Nixon tried to cultivate an alliance with AFL-CIO leader George Meany, he was never able to secure anything beyond ambivalent support from the nation’s most powerful lobby for the working class. (Meany stated that he personally opposed the bill and believed that most of the rank-and-file did as well.) The FAP implicitly threatened the reason for the AFL-CIO’s very existence: if the government began subsidizing the wages of stingy employers, it would weaken the organization’s position at the bargaining table. As the debate wore on, this larger question was never answered: Was the FAP a vehicle for economic empowerment or a subsidy for degrading, low-wage work?
Most remarkably, the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO) lobbied vehemently against the plan from the start, despite the fact that it had adopted guaranteed income as its primary goal at its first convention in 1967. It is true that the NWRO had technical reasons for opposing the plan—most of the members were residents of large northern cities whose generous welfare benefits would be effectively reduced under the FAP, and as single mothers they objected to Nixon’s work requirements—but opposition to the plan seems also to have been fueled by a skepticism of conservatives’ motives. “I heard that Senator Long said as long as he can’t get his laundry done he’s going to put welfare recipients to work,” testified Beulah Sanders, vice chairman of the NWRO’s New York City affiliate. “Those days are gone forever! … We ain’t gonna clean it!”
Ironically, the very senator singled out by Sanders, Democrat Russell Long of Louisiana, was, as chair of the intransigent Senate Finance Committee, as responsible as any other single opponent for the bill’s defeat. Long’s reservations about the FAP were the opposite of Sanders’s: he suspected it was actually too generous to recipients.
The FAP never made it out of the Senate Finance Committee. And what followed was a further balkanization of welfare policy into group-based rather than universal programs. Separate benefits programs—the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—were established for the employed, aged, blind and disabled. Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), meanwhile, remained a target for cutbacks and punitive restrictions, culminating in enormous budget cuts by the Reagan administration and the dismantling of the program by Bill Clinton.
This retrenchment notwithstanding, we now find ourselves in a macroeconomic predicament much like the one that first piqued professional interest in basic income fifty years ago: as Donald Trump incessantly reminds us, the economy could hardly be any stronger by many major metrics, but structural weaknesses—record levels of personal debt, stagnant wages, increasing automation and the skyrocketing costs of housing, health care and education—confine large parts of the population to unnecessary misery. It’s little wonder that, despite the decades-long project to dismantle the American welfare state, guaranteed income is coming back into fashion.
On the left, where egalitarian ends are largely taken for granted, basic income is often treated as a technical question—a matter, as Hillary Clinton put it, of getting the numbers to work. It’s clear, at least in the U.S., that the money is there. The question is how big the shift from other expenditures would be. Critics are quick to point out that modest benefit levels would have the effect of subsidizing employers who only offer low-wage jobs and disempowering vulnerable groups who still need to take those jobs (especially if basic income is paid for with cuts to other core benefits like Medicaid or food stamps). The larger the benefit level, on the other hand, the more politically disruptive it could be—simultaneously redistributing the tax dollars of entrenched interests and weakening their control over a historically pliant labor market. In other words, what appear to be technical questions are really questions about values: What do we hope to achieve with this shift in wealth?
During the mid-century theoretical jockeying over guaranteed income, the policy was pitched as something that could promote that most elusive of American values: freedom. Both Friedman and Theobald included the word in the titles of their books, and yet they meant profoundly different things by it. If papering over these differences had initially helped propel the policy, it also may have had something to do with why its advocates had trouble overcoming obstacles once they arose.
For Friedman, freedom was the right of individuals to personally authorize their own relationships and activities. Capitalism secured this right by reducing as much organized human activity as possible to contractual exchange. Unlike the edicts of a strongman or the laws of a parliamentary majority, Friedman felt, these exchanges required the consent of the individuals involved. The people entering into them were “free” in the sense that they had the highest authority possible in an advanced society over how they disposed of their talents and resources.
Theobald agreed that capitalist markets had produced an unprecedented volume of material resources—enough, in raw terms, to meet the basic needs of the world’s population—but he emphasized how few people had access to this wealth. Why not use a guaranteed income to universally distribute the purchasing power produced by the market? For Theobald, reaching this level of socioeconomic development was to be a turning point in the human experience of freedom. Having spent recent centuries subordinating all its activity to material necessities, the human race could now enjoy the freedom to pursue new ends beyond the satisfaction of mere want. But what would these ends be? Theobald is careful not to say, insisting it will be up to the first generation of guaranteed-income recipients to find out.
That generation has still not come. And perhaps, for those of us who still want to make a compelling case for basic income, it is no longer possible, or desirable, to defer the question: Freedom to do what? Can one offer an affirmative answer to this question without becoming paternalistic or prescriptive? If basic income is to provide freedom, what sorts of things does one do when one is free?
Hannah Arendt published The Human Condition in 1958, just before the dawn of guaranteed income’s decade in the American limelight. Although uninterested in specific policy prescriptions, the book explored the same thematic terrain that would inform Friedman and Theobald’s guaranteed-income proposals: the role and scope of government activity, the relationship between individuals and wage work, and the impact of developments in both of these spheres on human freedom. Like Free Men and Free Markets, The Human Condition predicted that automation would soon make the majority of human labor obsolete. Arendt’s concern with what this liberation would mean was not merely economic or administrative. The deeper question for her was what the newly liberated laborers would do in a society that had lost sight of “those other higher and more meaningful activities for the sake of which this freedom would deserve to be won.”
Arendt emphasized the difference between our contemporary “society of laborers” and that of the ancient Greeks, which established firm boundaries between the private realm of labor (the household) and the public realm of the polis, where men (in that case) could engage in these “higher and more meaningful activities” without concern for life’s bare necessities, which were handled in private. Arendt recognized the polis could not offer a direct model for today’s society; what it could show us was why human beings desired such political spaces in the first place—in order to exercise their freedom. We are used to thinking of government policy as concerned with the activities of labor, work and behavior—with meeting needs, building things and tweaking incentives to mitigate harmful activity. But a series of developments that preceded the failure of Nixon’s FAP suggest that guaranteed income can, in addition, and under certain conditions, promote Arendt’s positive, non-prescriptive vision of freedom.
The National Welfare Rights Organization is typically remembered unkindly or not at all—Moynihan pilloried the group in his 1973 postmortem of the FAP, The Politics of a Guaranteed Income—but for a five-year period in the late Sixties, the group and its hundreds of local affiliates demonstrated how guaranteed income could function for its recipients as a point of entry into a fuller civic life. NWRO-affiliated groups, led by black women in the large cities of the Northeast, were organized primarily around their legal entitlement to welfare payments, which cities with growing poor populations were increasingly withholding due to fiscal and political pressures. By mobilizing around the legal requirement that welfare payments be scaled to bring any given household up to “minimum standards,” as well as the right of recipients to a “fair hearing” to appeal any withholding of aid, NWRO affiliates secured millions of dollars in additional dispensations in the late Sixties and curtailed the administrative bullying of local welfare offices. By organizing disruptive direct-action campaigns against department stores, they were also able to secure lines of credit for poor people previously reliant on predatory hucksters. On a third front, they litigated for their entitlement to benefits, contributing to Supreme Court decisions that suggested welfare might be a legal right rather than a privilege.
The NWRO’s successes organizing around AFDC benefits do not provide a direct blueprint for a future basic-income policy: AFDC excluded most of the nation’s poor from any benefits at all, and it gave caseworkers inordinate power over the lives of recipients. But they do suggest some features that might make the policy more conducive to the exercise of a positive Arendtian freedom, understood as the ability to shape one’s society by acting and speaking in the public sphere. Ideally, as Robert Theobald insisted, guaranteed income would become a constitutional right, which would open up the court system—at its best a kind of polis in miniature—to the arguments of every citizen over their right to adequate income. It would also guarantee large enough benefits to allow individuals to exit the labor market entirely without forgoing necessities and small comforts, freeing them from the pursuit of bare life that Arendt identified as an impediment to freedom. Former SEIU president Andy Stern’s proposal of an unconditional $1,000 per adult per month might be considered a baseline basic income on this count, though it would certainly need to be supplemented by European-style child allowances, the maintenance of existing cash benefits that exceed its value (e.g. Social Security), and the strengthening of essential in-kind benefits like Medicare and Medicaid.
A more austere guaranteed-income policy, on the other hand, would risk having the opposite impact, encouraging civic disengagement by further incentivizing the individualistic, zero-sum thinking of the marketplace. Even a benefit numerically close to Stern’s proposal would have this effect if it totally replaced existing benefits; this is almost precisely the policy that the vehemently anti-welfare Charles Murray has proposed. Behind this vision lies what Arendt believed was a key error in Western thought: the identification of freedom with individual sovereignty. The idea that any individual might be completely free from the undue interference of others, à la Friedman, struck her as not only unrealistic but misanthropic. Every action, every exercise of freedom, by definition interferes with the existence of others: it is a condition of our humanity, she insisted, that we share the world with others whose words and actions we have to reckon with. If a basic-income policy is to be truly attractive, then, it should be pitched as providing every individual this kind of platform upon which they can stand and be heard by other citizens and political actors—a platform that allows them to engage more fully in a civic life currently dominated by dynastic wealth and concentrated capital.
There are signs that this distributive conception of freedom is already taking hold among today’s guaranteed-income proponents. In Basic Income, for example, Van Parijs and Vanderborght note that the moral conception underwriting robust universal-basic-income schemes “treats freedom not as a constraint on what justice requires but as the very stuff that justice consists in distributing fairly.” However, Van Parijs and Vanderborght stop short of outlining an Arendtian positive vision of freedom. The “real freedom for all” they call for is not just the “sheer right but also the genuine capacity to do whatever one might wish to do.”
There are good reasons they do not limit or circumscribe the kinds of activities that basic income would enable. It is a feature, not a bug, of basic income that it allows some people to devote themselves entirely to making art, some to the full-time care of loved ones, and, yes, some to greater leisure. But this does not mean that advocates for the policy must refrain from highlighting one of the particular ways of life that basic income will make possible—after all, “whatever one might wish to do” is hardly an inspiring slogan. Those of us who believe that our vision of the good life is one that can be supported by basic income can lobby for it in those terms, even as we acknowledge that other visions are also possible. In doing so we’ll be able to better galvanize those unmoved by general appeals to liberal principles. And to more effectively challenge the current, myopic outlook, where one can only ever labor or be idle—and misery is the rule rather than the exception.
Art credit: MiYoung Sohn, “Money”