Basic Income: Towards an Intellectual History

In January 2019, Peter Sloman, Daniel Zamora and I welcomed over fifty scholars, campaigners and students to Cambridge for a one-day conference on ‘Basic Income: towards an Intellectual History’. The piece below, adapted from my opening remarks to the conference, gives a personal view of how we might begin to write a history of Universal Basic income ideas, and what that might be useful for.

Our motivation to hold the conference was simple – the idea of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has gained a degree of visibility that is arguably unprecedented (whether it is or not was one of the topics of the conference). It seemed to us high time to bring together the still small but increasing number of researchers taking an historical perspective on the idea. And we were also keen to invite some of those who have been involved in campaigning and discussing UBI for decades, bringing our different perspectives into conversation. To open the proceedings, I asked a provocative question: what might be the use of a history of Universal Basic Income?


When bringing any idea to the public arena, inserting it in a venerable genealogy – be it the tradition of Tom Paine or of Milton Friedman, for instance – is a way of seeking legitimation. It anchors the unusual in the familiar, and helps the argument gain the ear and trust of an audience. But it is also a distortion – if a well meant one. Ideas change the world but are also the product of their world and change with it. ‘Basic Income-like’ ideas in the 1930s, for example, were something very different from the idea of Universal Basic Income today. If we seek to remake the past in our image, rather than work with its difference, its unfamiliarity and discontinuities, we will learn little. A further difficulty is that the idea of Basic Income may have a history, but as an institution, a policy, its practical history is short. Outside a few limited experiments, Basic Income is an ideal awaiting implementation.

It has been said that UBI is ‘An idea whose time has come’. But, for all its appeal, it is an idea whose time has come and gone several times during the last century. On the one hand we no longer see such experiences as rehearsals on a pre-determined road to fulfilment: the teleological certainties of modern ideologies, where the past would show the road to the future, have gone. Yet neither should we have to see those past moments as confirmation of UBI’s impossibility.

So, what then can a History of Basic Income give to us?

In his recent book advocating Basic Income – Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution (2015)the anthropologist James Ferguson writes of the importance of what he calls ‘historicising the future’. For Ferguson, this means that any future oriented project must explore ‘the distinct layers of sedimented history that shape and constrain the field of possibilities’ for its coming into being.[1] This seems to me a productive way to engage with history – although not an easy one. By historicising those moments in the past when basic income-like proposals emerge, we can do three things. First, we can explore the assemblages of power, ideas, and agency through which the idea came to the fore each time; second, we can analyse the conditions of possibility – the political struggles, the obstacles, and the successes – of each of those moments; and finally, we can use that knowledge to reflect on how our present basic income ‘wave’ was built upon those layers of history, and on its own conditions of possibility.

Under the first heading we can ask why do basic income-like proposals emerge at particular times and recede into the background in others; and in what forms it appears at each instance. For instance, how are key questions about entitlement addressed – who is a citizen? how does citizenship intersect with gender and race? – but also about institutional form:  what is the role envisaged for the state and other actors? Similarly, we should ask what kinds of problems is Basic Income proposed as a response to at different times. But we should also be attentive to the importance of place: how have Basic Income ideas entered political currency differently in the global south and in the global north?

The ‘conditions of possibility’ direct us to the arguments and counter-arguments made at each moment, their content, but also their framing, and how these vary according to historical context. When have Basic Income ideas been presented as radical utopias or as the pragmatic response to perceived challenges? But it also asks us to identify who is a part of these debates: what is the role of intellectuals, including academics? – of policy-makers and radical outsiders? And what are the channels of diffusion, the arenas of debate, and the institutions through which Basic Income debates are played out? Finally, who are its adversaries, and what are the obstacles to the progress of the proposal in each of these instances? In sum: what has been the political history of the idea of Basic Income?

Because each episode is different, because the past is different, the answers to these questions will not give us a roadmap to the future. They may, however, help us see how and why Basic Income grows in popularity in certain conditions and not in others; it helps us to reflect on how our own present concerns and situations are the result of historical sedimentation, of routes taken and not taken in the past. But, and in my opinion most importantly, the exercise of understanding and analysing the past in its own terms is also an aid to help us better understand our own blind spots, assumptions, and ideologies. Asking questions of the past can lead us to ask questions of our own present – look around corners we have ignored before, consider neglected difficulties but also possibilities. Ultimately, this kind of critical reflection – encompassing the past and the present – is a way of thinking about the constraints and opportunities for radical change in the field of social justice.


This text is adapted from the opening remarks to ‘The Intellectual History of Universal Basic Income’ conference, held in 14 January 2019 at the University of Cambridge. The programme can be found here


Pedro Ramos Pinto, Senior Lecturer in International Economic History, University of Cambridge


[1] James Ferguson, Give a Man a Fish, p.82.