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The Deep and Enduring History of Universal Basic Income

While the concept stretches back centuries, it has garnered significant attention in recent decades.

Support for Universal Basic Income (UBI) has grown so rapidly over the past few years that people might think the idea appeared out of nowhere. In fact, the idea has roots going back hundreds or even thousands of years, and activists have been floating similar ideas with gradually increasing frequency for more than a century.

Since 1900, the concept of a basic income guarantee (BIG) has experienced three distinct waves of support, each larger than the last. The first, from 1910 to 1940, was followed by a down period in the 1940s and 1950s. A second and larger wave of support happened in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by another lull in most countries through about 2010. BIG’s third, most international, and by far largest wave of support began to take off in the early 2010s, and it has increased every year since then.

Before the First Wave

We could trace the beginnings of UBI into prehistory, because many have observed that “prehistoric” (in the sense of nonliterate) societies had two ways of doing things that might be considered forms of unconditional income.

First, nomadic, hunting and gathering societies of less than 60 people have often been observed to treat all land as commons, meaning that everyone can forage on the land but no one can own it. A similar right to use land has existed in many small-scale agrarian communities right up to the enclosure movement, which was not complete in Europe until the 20th century and is not complete around the world today. The connection between common land and UBI is that both institutions allow every individual to have access to the resources they need to survive without conditions imposed by others.

Second, most observed small-scale, nomadic, hunter-gatherer societies had strong obligations to share what they had with others. If someone camping with the group found more food than they and their immediate family could eat in one meal, they had to share it with everyone in the camp, including people who rarely or never brought back food for the community. The food shared around camp could be seen as a “basic” income.

The modern definition of UBI stipulates the grant must be in cash, and because small-scale hunter-gatherer or agrarian communities do not have cash economies, they do not have UBIs. But these practices show how the values that motivate much of the modern UBI movement are not new to politics but have been recognized and practiced for a very long time.