New Interest in an Old Idea - The Intellectual History of Universal Basic Income

Over the recent decades changing labour regimes have increased income and employment uncertainty for many people. Radical ideas to address these issues have become increasingly popular. Universal Basic Income is one of them. An idea with a rich history that offers the opportunity to discuss questions about the very essence of our communities.

17. Apr 2019 · Nicolà Bezzola

There are not many ideas that may potentially unite socialists, libertarians and conservatives alike. Universal Basic Income (UBI) is one of them. UBI has gained in popularity in recent years, leading to small-scale experiments being carried out all over the globe and even triggering a nation-wide vote in Switzerland in 2016, in which 23.1% were favourable to it. Throughout its history, UBI has attracted supporters and critics from all ends of the political spectrum. For some, it represents the solution to a declining Welfare state, the means to eradicate poverty and a safeguard against a precarious existence. For others, it represents an ineffective and unaffordable utopia. Appealing or not, the idea is increasingly finding its way into the political arena.

Despite the recent surge of interest for UBI, the idea is far from novel. Its beginnings are little known, reaching back at least two centuries.

The roots of UBI can be traced back at least to the French Enlightenment of the 18th century and the thinking of philosophers and revolutionaries, such as Montesquieu, Mably, Babeuf, Condorcet and Robespierre (1). However, some accounts identify its earliest forms in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and in the works of Johannes Ludovicus Vives from the early 16th century (2). In spite of the many names and formulations the idea has been historically given its various theoretical expressions are connected by a common thread. Philippe van Parijs, one of UBI’s main proponents today, characterises its essence as ‘an income paid by a government, at a uniform level and at regular intervals, to each adult member of society. The grant is paid, and its level is fixed, irrespective of whether the person is rich or poor, lives alone or with others, is willing to work or not.’ (3) This notion makes UBI unconditional in three ways: It is universal, not subject to any obligations, and granted to every individual independent of the recipient’s household situation, which contrasts starkly with contemporary means-tested social welfare programmes (4).

Inspired by the French Revolution and the French thinkers, Thomas Paine’s (1791-92/1795) and Thomas Spence’s (1797) writings introduced UBI to British intellectuals. While they did not envisage a UBI as universal and unconditional as it is understood today, they were astonishingly complex in the construction of their arguments (5). These arguments covered a range of perspectives and utilitarian considerations, and emphasised the individual’s right to existence, and the right of each individual to the produce of nature (6). Yet, it was not until the first half of the 20th century (between 1910 and 1940) that the idea started to gain wider support, leading Karl Widerquist to label this period as UBI’s first wave (7). In 1918, Dennis and Mabel Milner proposed a weekly ‘state bonus’ of five shillings to every individual in Britain, in hopes that it would allow them to sustain ‘life and liberty’ (8). In the same year, Bertrand Russell advocated a small ‘vagabond’s wage’ for similar reasons, an idea that fell on deaf ears within the British labour party (9). Nonetheless, UBI continued to enjoy at least some currency among left-wing thinkers and, at one point, James Meade, who would later become a Nobel laureate, expressed sympathy for the idea of a ‘national dividend’ (10). The appeal of UBI began to fade in Britain during the 1940s, at which time the idea, promoted by the liberal Juliet Rhys-Williams, was eclipsed by William Beveridge’s comprehensive plan to institutionalise the social welfare system (11).

After briefly falling off the radar, the idea was revisited in the form of a Negative Income Tax (NIT) by libertarians such as Milton Friedman in the 1960s. Quite often, NIT is lumped together with the idea of UBI. Though the distributional effects may, in some circumstances, be identical, means-tested NIT constitutes a very different approach, as demonstrated by Davide Tondani (12). Thinking on UBI or NIT was dominated by more liberal than left-wing proponents until the 1980s, when the idea again started to attract radical thinkers from the left. This time, feminist critique has given UBI strong transformative appeal. Interestingly, women’s empowerment through UBI had already been promoted by the celebrated feminist, Virginia Woolf, in the early 20th century, and is a central theme of A Room of One’s Own (1929), which explores the idea of a fixed income of 500 pounds a year (13). During the 1980s, both the political left and liberals showed continued interest in the idea.  Apparently unaware of any pre-existing conceptions of UBI, Philippe van Parijs has been one of its leading advocates ever since 1982, and spearheaded the foundation of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) in 1986.

It is, however, not until very recently, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, that the movement in favour of UBI reached new heights of success. This recent wave’s most striking feature, compared to previous movements, is its global dimension. The idea has gained ground in numerous countries and support networks have taken increasingly international forms. This is not to say that there are no continuities with previous movements. As Peter Sloman claims, the history of UBI suggests that its popularity has been strongest when the prospects of employment and living wages have seemed most uncertain (14). This time is no exception. Many people all over the globe - especially following the Great Recession - feel distressed by the uncertain prospects of the post-Fordist labour regime, a regime dominated by precarious work arrangements and in which the Welfare state is seemingly unable to keep its promises. Flexibility and adaptability have become norms in the labour market. As a result of the strain this puts on society, more and more people are finding themselves sliding into the precariat, in which uncertainty about employment, income and the future are the new standards - an idea Guy Standing has developed in The Precariat (15). One aspect of this new labour regime is the increasing share of the workforce engaged in temporary labour. For example, in Switzerland, temporary employees accounted for 14% of all jobholders in 2015, which represents an increase of 12% compared to 2001 (16). In 2010, temporary employees in Japan already accounted for a third of the labour force (17). The situation is no different in other countries. Recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) reports and research papers show that temporary and part-time employment, as well as flexible working-time arrangements, have become more common in advanced economies over the last decades (18). Admittedly, this is not, by itself, conclusive evidence of growing precarity, as there are many potential causes of these developments. This would require corroboration beyond the scope of this article, and such findings should serve only to illustrate the transformation of the labour regime over the last decades.

Whether or not Guy Standing’s concept of the precariat is accurate, it is clear that the structure of labour has changed dramatically. The weakening of the labourist ideal forces us to reconsider our understanding of wage labour, work and leisure. In this respect, I would argue that UBI offers us an opportunity to discuss the value of work, and what contributing to society really means. Behind these issues related to work and contribution looms the question of desert, which, in turn, raises the question as to whether we should consider UBI as a right or an act of charity. James Ferguson – as well as Thomas Paine over two hundred years before him – makes a strong case for viewing UBI as a right for every member of society (19). Whether or not we are in favour of UBI, the debates surrounding it provide us with the opportunity to discuss urgent questions concerning the very foundations of our communities. Unfortunately, as Tiago Mata emphasised in a presentation on the movement since the 1980s, public debate has more or less been reduced to a battle of numbers, at the expense of ideas (20). To be sure, numbers are important, especially when it comes to UBI. This must not, however, make us lose sight of ideas.


1. King and Marangos, ‘Two Arguments for Basic Income’, 55.

2. ‘History of Basic Income | BIEN’.

3. Van Parijs, ‘A Basic Income for All’, 5.

4. Van Parijs, ‘Basic Income and Social Democracy’.

5. King and Marangos, ‘Two Arguments for Basic Income’; Paine, ‘The Rights of Man’; Paine, ‘Agrarian Justice’; Spence, Pigs’ Meat: The Selected Writings of Thomas Spence, Radical and Pioneer Land Reformer.

6. King and Marangos, ‘Two Arguments for Basic Income’.

7. Widerquist, ‘Basic Income’s Third Wave’.

8. Sloman, ‘Universal Basic Income in British Politics, 1918–2018’, 628.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Sloman, ‘Beveridge’s Rival’.

12. Tondani, ‘Universal Basic Income and Negative Income Tax’; Sloman, ‘Universal Basic Income in British Politics, 1918–2018’, 627.

13. Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 43.

14. Sloman, ‘Universal Basic Income in British Politics, 1918–2018’, 628.

15. Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class, 1–25.

16. Mattmann et al., ‘Die Entwicklung atypisch-prekärer Arbeitsverhältnisse in der Schweiz’, 29.

17. Standing, The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class., 41.

18. Messenger, ‘Working Time and the Future of Work’; Countouris et al., ‘Report on Temporary Employment Agencies and Temporary Agency Work’; International Labour Office, Non-Standard Employment around the World.

19. Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish.

20. und


Countouris, Nicola, Simon Deakin, Mark Freeland, Aristea Koukiadaki, and Jeremias Prassl. ‘Report on Temporary Employment Agencies and Temporary Agency Work’. Geneva: International Labour Organisation, December 2016.

Ferguson, James. Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution. The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures. Durham ; London: Duke University Press, 2015.

‘History of Basic Income | BIEN’. Accessed 18 February 2019.

International Labour Office. Non-Standard Employment around the World: Understanding Challenges, Shaping Prospects. Geneva: International Labour Office, 2016.

King, John E., and John Marangos. ‘Two Arguments for Basic Income: Thomas Paine (1737-1809) and Thomas Spence (1750-1814)’. History of Economic Ideas, 2006, 55–71.

Mattmann, Michael, Ursula Walther, Julian Frank, and Michael Marti. ‘Die Entwicklung Atypischprekärer Arbeitsverhältnisse in Der Schweiz’. Ecoplan im Auftrag des Staatssekretariats für Wirtschaft SECO, 2017.

Messenger, Jon. ‘Working Time and the Future of Work’. ILO Future of Work Research Paper Series. Geneva: International Labour Organisation, 2018.

Paine, Thomas. ‘Agrarian Justice’. In Thomas Paine Rights of Man Common Sense and Other Political Writings, 409–35. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

———. ‘The Rights of Man’. In Thomas Paine Rights of Man Common Sense and Other Political Writings, 83–198. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Sloman, Peter. ‘Beveridge’s Rival: Juliet Rhys-Williams and the Campaign for Basic Income, 1942–55’. Contemporary British History 30, no. 2 (2016): 203–223.

———. ‘Universal Basic Income in British Politics, 1918–2018: From a “Vagabond’s Wage” to a Global Debate’. Journal of Social Policy 47, no. 3 (July 2018): 625–42.

Spence, Thomas. Pigs’ Meat: The Selected Writings of Thomas Spence, Radical and Pioneer Land Reformer. Edited by G. I. Gallop. Nottingham: Spokesman, 1982.

Standing, Guy. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2011.

Tondani, Davide. ‘Universal Basic Income and Negative Income Tax: Two Different Ways of Thinking Redistribution’. The Journal of Socio-Economics 38, no. 2 (March 2009): 246–55.

Van Parijs, Philippe. ‘A Basic Income for All’. In What’s Wrong with a Free Lunch?, edited by Joshua Cohen and Joel Rogers, 3–26. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 2001.

———. ‘Basic Income and Social Democracy’. Social Europe Journal (Online): Https://Www. Socialeurope. Eu/2016/04/44878, 2016.

Widerquist, Karl. ‘Basic Income’s Third Wave’. Manuscrito Não Publicado, Georgetown University, Georgetown, Estados Unidos. Disponível Em Https://Works. Bepress. Com/Widerquist/74, 2016.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Triad Grafton, 1987.


Nicolà Bezzola ist Masterstudent für Wirtschaftsgeschichte an der London School of Economics. Seinen Bachelor absolvierte er an der Universität Bern in Volkswirtschaftslehre und Sozialanthropologie.


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