A basic income is the best policy idea you’ve never heard of. The idea is simple: instead of, or in addition to, the panoply of government transfer programs currently in place, we just give everyone in the country a set amount of money per year, no strings attached. The benefit could phase out as one’s income rises (this variant is known as a “guaranteed minimum income”) or could just be granted unconditionally: you get $10,000 a year, I get $10,000 a year, the poorest of the poor get $10,000 a year, Bill Gates gets $10,000, etc.
The idea has an impressive intellectual lineage. Famed libertarian economist Milton Friedman advocated a guaranteed minimum income (implemented through a scheme known as a “negative income tax”), as did Martin Luther King Jr. Richard Nixon and his then-aide and future Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan tried to pass one in the early 1970s, and his 1972 Democratic opponent George McGovern backed one too. Many economists including Nobelist James Tobin and John Kenneth Galbraith signed a 1968 petition endorsing the idea.
Today, the idea’s endorsed by a motley crew of all ideological stripes. Leftists like Erik Olin Wright, Peter Frase, Carole Pateman, Antonio Negri, and Michael Hardt have backed the idea, as has the Green Party; the plan’s most influential advocate, Philippe van Parijs, has even defended the idea as a “capitalist road to communism.” But many libertarians, including The Bell Curve author Charles Murray and Guy Sorman, like the idea as a way to replace the welfare state. In fact, the FairTax plan — which would replace most federal taxes with a sales tax and is backed by 73 members of the house and 8 members of the Senate (all Republicans) — includes a small basic income. In between, a variety of mainstream left-of-center economists including Robert Solow, Jonathan Gruber and Emmanuel Saez like the idea too.
Now it appears to have the support of ultra-conservative Fox News host Stuart Varney. Varney — who once berated economist Robert Frank, another basic income fan, for daring to suggest that peoples’ economic success might be influenced by luck — discussed a Swiss proposal for a basic income with Mercatus Institute scholar and frequent National Review/Reason contributor Veronique de Rugy, and both expressed surprising degrees of sympathy for the plan. Watch above!
I’ve written about basic incomes at Wonkblog, as has Mike Konczal. Matt Bruenig and Elizabeth Stoker have a good piece on the idea in The Atlantic, and Danny Vinik has a great overview at Business Insider. Click “Know More” to read Annie Lowrey’s column on the Swiss plan.