Basic Income 101

The July 2017 edition of Reason magazine contains a fascinating article by Jesse Walker that provides a comprehensive history of Basic Income: from the concept’s murky beginnings in 1795 to contemporary experiments in unconditional transfers and similar initiatives by governments and NGOs around the world. The ASI has championed the (virtually identical) idea of a Negative Income Tax since the 1970s, and the number of supportive voices for such schemes has grown significantly in recent years.

European countries such as Finland and the Netherlands are in the early stages of basic income experiments, but the most dramatic tests of the concept are being conducted in the context of poverty alleviation in the developing world. In the piece, Walker raises the example of GiveDirectly:

“Having moved from conditional to conditionless cash payments, GiveDirectly's directors started thinking about taking another step and experimenting with a full-fledged basic income—not just payments to a village's neediest families, but a long-term income for everyone in town, one set high enough for people to live on it. Other aid groups had already conducted experiments along these lines in India and Namibia; the results appeared to be favorable, but these studies were too short-term to draw firm conclusions from them, and the Namibian experiment had the additional problem of not being randomized.”

Walker also highlights that despite reasonable dissent (and inevitable ‘anything but the outgroup’ opposition) from across the ideological spectrum, there are currently a wide range of political positions that include elements of support for basic income — something that has been the case for several decades:

“As in the 1960s, the interest is coming from many different directions. Center-left wonks perceive the basic income as a more market-friendly approach to welfare policy. Radicals hail it as an alternative to the "neoliberalism" they associate with those same wonks, imagining a day when work is detached from income and we live in a world of postscarcity abundance. Silicon Valley figures hope it will help us survive the upheaval to be unleashed when artificial intelligence wreaks havoc on labor markets. Libertarians see it as a way to simplify the welfare maze into a cheaper and less intrusive single program.”

If you’re looking for an engaging, accessible, and detailed introduction to the basic income “movement,” look no further than Walker’s essay.