By Alberto Tena
The Rights of Infants, published in 1797, is one of the first modern texts to describe an idea of what we now call a universal basic income. There, through the mouth of a peasant woman, the radical activist, teacher and bookseller Thomas Spence, wants to convince us of the idea that it is desirable for collective institutions to distribute a universal weekly income. The pamphlet recounts a heated argument between a woman and a landowner. The woman protagonist claims the right of every human being to obtain the fruits of the land one inhabits, enough to feed the newborns she is watching starve to death. “And since we have found our husbands, to their indelible shame, woefully negligent and deficient in defending their own rights, as well as those of their wives and children, we women intend to go into business for ourselves, and see if any of our husbands dare stand in the way. They will thus find the business much more seriously and effectually managed in our hands than it has been hitherto.” (Spence, 1797, 82)
Among all the business that needs to be managed collectively is a weekly income for the whole community. Land, without which the reproduction of life was impossible, had been given by God equally to the whole population and stolen afterwards by the privatisations of the big landowners. Basic income was a way of distributing its fruits as a universal right.
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