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Guaranteeing a Minimum Income Has Been a Utopian Dream for Centuries

Switzerland's move to pay its citizens $2,800 a month for simply for being alive isn't a new idea—Islamic Caliphates, American Revolutionaries, and Martin Luther King, Jr have all pushed for a basic mincome.
November 14, 2013, 7:31pm
Image: Flickr

Switzerland made headlines with its proposal to dole out $2,800 per month to every citizen in the nation, thus creating a basic minimum income—and ensuring that no Swiss ever had to live below the poverty line again. It's a seemingly radical effort to redistribute income, and to sew together one of the most generous safety nets possible—but it's hardly a new idea.

The utopian notion that a society should pool and distribute its resources to gaurantee the wellbeing of its most vulnerable citizens dates back over a millenium: Islamic Caliphates, American revolutionaries, sci-fi writers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. have all pushed for a basic minimum income.


One of the earliest incarnations first surfaced in Arabia in the early 600s, and sprung from Islamic religious tradition. It's called zakat. The scholar Grace Clark writes that "Zakat as a traditional religious institution involves both the payment and distribution of zakat. Muslim juists have defined zakat as a 'complete, unilateral, and unconditional transfer by a Muslim of ownership … as an act of piety of a prescribed portion of property to a poor Muslim."

"Essentially," Clark writes, "Zakat is payment by a Muslim who has more than enough wealth to meet his needs, to one of certain kinds of deserving poor Muslims."

Which would basically be charity, if it weren't institutionalized. But Abu Bakr—the prophet Muhammad's father-in-law—took zakat a step further during his tenure as Caliphate in 632 CE.

"Abu Bakr also introduced a guaranteed minimum standard of income, granting each man, woman, and child ten dirhams annually; this was later increased to twenty dirhams," Clark explains. The policy was continued for nearly a century, until 720 CE, when, in the face of declining trust in the state, it was dissolved and zakat became a voluntary act of charity.

Bakr isn't the only major historical figure to push for a mincome, either—there are enough pro-minimum income luminaries throughout history to fill a Wikipedia page.

Thomas Paine, the famed pamphleteer and American revolutionary, was a staunch proponent of guaranteeing every American landed property. Napoleon Bonaparte liked the idea, too, and said that "man is entitled by birthright to a share of the Earth's produce sufficient to fill the needs of his existence."


Even Martin Luther King, Jr. was on board.

"I am now convinced that the simplest approach will prove to be the most effective—the solution to poverty is to abolish it directly by a now widely discussed measure: the guaranteed income," King wrote in his last book, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?

But some of the deepest dives into the ramifications of enacting a mincome come from science fiction. Just today, the Futorology subreddit pointed to Robert Heinlein's first ever and long-unpublished novel, For Us, the Living. The novel, long-believed lost, was discovered in a garage and published in 2003—just in time to offer a prescient solution to the incoming financial crisis: a guaranteed basic income. It depicts a techno-utopian world in 2086, where every citizen receives a social credit, and no one is overworked, thanks in part to advanced production and machinery.

The novel—which you can get a taste of here—is essentially a Socratic dialog about speculative economics (little wonder publishers balked in 1938 when Heinlein was still unknown). It argues that a mincome, doled out by a central bank, helps correct overproduction and the endless growth model, in addition to guaranteeing every citizen's security.

Today, the basic income still has its share of vocal proponents on both sides of the political spectrum and a smattering of real-world experiments to draw from. The economist Milton Friedman famously supported a form of basic minimum income. And in the 70s, a Canadian city enacted an official policy called Mincome, providing its citizens between $3,800 and $5,800 per month from 1974 to 1979, no questions asked.

Meanwhile, the ultra-conservative Charles Murray and his supporters call for a basic income because it would eliminate government waste—no patchwork social welfare machine comprised of food stamps, Medicaid, housing assistance, etc. In their view, the minimum income system ostensibly allows citizens to buy all of the above on the free market, however they'd like.

Liberals, conversely, tend to call for the mincome as a stronger, more robust safety net in an age of increasing automation and job insecurity. Business blogger Matt Yglesias routinely voices support for the mincome as a balm for roboticization and the decline of manufacturing jobs. There simply won't be enough jobs for everyone in the near future, the thinking goes, as machines will be doing more and more of them. So we need to plug the void. Taking some of the revenues generated by robot-intensive labor and pooling it for citizens squeezed out of work seems like an elegant solution.

Cyprus, the epicenter of a recent economic meltdown, is installing a minimum income next year. Switzerland may be next. It's been a laudable goal of history's champions of the poor—now, our rapidly advancing and economically disruptive technologies might soon make it necessary for all of us.