The campaign for a Basic Income – more marathon than sprint

Every once in a while we get a reminder that the campaign for a Basic Income is more a marathon than a sprint. Thomas Paine was proposing one as far back as the 18th century. And the idea has ebbed and flowed in popularity through the centuries.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the Social Credit Movement, led by Clifford Hugh Douglas, gathered thousands of supporters around the world. A guaranteed income, advocated for by Martin Luther King, almost made it into law in the United States under a Republican president, Richard Nixon.

Today there is an exciting new pilot of basic income in Wales and many other pilots around the world.

The late 1960s was a time of great hope for radical social change, but by the 1970s that hope was ebbing away. Partly this was because of unresolved problems in the post-war Keynesian consensus. John Maynard Keynes had the way in showing that governments could do much more to ensure full employment and effective income security through demand management – increasing public spending.

However, especially where governments, business and trade unions could not agree how to redistribute resources there was a constant risk of price inflation. After the oil shocks of the early 1970s governments started to abandon full employment as a goal. Instead the threat of unemployment was used as a way to reduce wage demands by ordinary people.

One of the economists who addressed this issue directly was the Nobel Prize winning economist Professor James Meade. He proposed a mixture of measures, including basic income and the creation of a national assets fund, in order to ensure that realism about prices and wages would be balanced by realistic guarantees of income security and equality.

Here is an interview with James Meade where he sets out the economic case for basic income. The source is uncertain, but it was found in the vaults of the Citizen’s Basic Income Trust (apologies for the poor audio quality).

Clearly Professor Meade’s fears that we would slip backwards, abandon the goal of full employment and instead create a more punitive social security system have been realised. Governments still seek to manage the economy to some degree, but now the creation of money has been privatised and power has shifted to the commercial banking system. The result has been increased levels of debt, insecurity but also massive inflation in house prices. Employment is not secured with secure jobs, but by increasing the level of insecure jobs.

The Citizens Basic Income Trust itself can trace its roots back to the 1980s, with the formation of the Basic income Research Group. At that time people were beginning to grapple with the injustice that people face when forced to cope with a complex system of means-tested and increasingly mean-spirited benefits.

Recently our newly appointed Chair of Trustees, Simon Duffy, unearthed a video that CBIT made in the early nineties that promotes the concept of basic income in the context of the recent recessions and preoccupation with the problems of work.

Reflecting on these two films Simon Duffy noted:

“It is interesting to see how the case for Basic Income changes in the light of changing circumstances. At the beginning of the twentieth century the Social Credit movement imagined a radical shift in the way that society was organised, ensuring economic security for men and women equally and focusing on creating forms of economic change that were truly valuable. But by the middle of the twentieth century Keynesian economics offered a more conservative vision, based on securing the patriarchal structures of the family and the workplace, offering full employment as the goal.

And by the end of the twentieth century a new kind of liberalism has emerged. Unemployment, means-testing and debt are now essential parts of a system of social control and any work, however insecure or negative, is treated as a strange kind of social obligation. However this model will not survive. Today we are much more aware of the dangers of consumerism, precarity and authoritarianism. The case for Basic Income remains as strong as ever, but in the twenty-first century our advocacy must be focused, less on employment and more on our need to be citizens”.

We continue to believe that a Basic Income is a fundamental component of a good society, where every individual has a solid floor of financial security on which to build a meaningful life.

If you agree with that, here are some ways in which you can get involved and help us get to the finishing line of this marathon!