The Long, Weird History of Universal Basic Income—and Why It’s Back


Thomas Paine, Napoleon, and Martin Luther King, Jr., don’t have much in common at first glance. Nor do socialists and libertarians—or Finnish bureaucrats and Silicon Valley tycoons. Some policies have a habit of creating strange bedfellows, but none more so than the idea that governments should guarantee their citizens a minimum level of income. Not by creating jobs or providing traditional welfare, but by cutting checks, for the same amount, to everyone.

Universal basic income (UBI) is an old idea, but in recent years it has gained considerable momentum. The threat of automation is focusing minds: Algorithms are learning to perform a growing number of blue- and white-collar jobs, and soon there may not be enough paid employment to go around .

Some basic income proponents, however, reject or ignore this doomsday scenario. “I appreciate that argument,” Basic Income Earth Network (BEIN) co-chair Karl Widerquist told Investopedia, “but I’m worried about overstressing it.” He prefers to frame the policy in terms of fundamental justice: “I lse and the resources they need to survive.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought even more urgency to the topic, as unemployment and financial hardship spread across the globe. The Spanish government, for one, announced in April that it was planning to pay a basic monthly income to roughly a million of the country’s neediest households to help them through the pandemic.

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