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Basic income: An idea whose time has come

Manish Tewari is a lawyer and a former Union minister. The views expressed are personal. Twitter handle @manishtewari
Published : Feb 3, 2019, 12:36 am IST
Updated : Feb 3, 2019, 12:36 am IST

Certain humanists commenced toying with the contours of a minimum income in the form of public aid.

Thomas More
 Thomas More

The concept of universal basic income has fairly ancient origins. The demand for minimum income first manifested itself at the commencement of the 16th century. The philosophical and ideological underpinnings of a comprehensive, one-off allowance first materialised at the end of the 18th century. The two were pooled for the first time to incubate the concept of universal basic income in the mid-19th century.

With the dawn of Renaissance, the charge of providing succor to the deprived and underprivileged stopped being deemed to be the sole preserve of the Church and other altruistic folks. Certain humanists commenced toying with the contours of a minimum income in the form of public aid.

In Thomas More’s Utopia, published in Louvain in 1516, the Portuguese traveller Raphael Nonsenso, walking in the central square of Antwerp, recounts a conversation he claims to have had with the Archbishop of Canterbury. He argued that minimum income through public assistance would be a more perspicacious technique to contain burglary than condemning thieves to death, which had the vile consequence of actually increasing the number of murders of burglary victims. He said, and I quote, “I once happened to be dining with the Cardinal when a certain English lawyer was there. I forgot how the subject came up, but he was speaking with great enthusiasm about the stern measures that were then being taken against thieves. ‘We’re hanging them all over the place’, he said. ‘I’ve seen as many as 20 on a single gallows. And that’s what I find so odd. Considering how few of them get away with it, how come we are still plagued with so many robbers?’ ‘What’s odd about it?’, I asked — for I never hesitated to speak freely in front of the Cardinal. ‘This method of dealing with thieves is both unjust and undesirable. As a punishment, it’s too severe, and as a deterrent, it’s quite ineffective. Petty larceny isn’t bad enough to deserve the death penalty. And no penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food. In this respect, you English, like most other nations, remind me of these incompetent schoolmasters, who prefer caning their pupils to teaching them. Instead of inflicting these horrible punishments, it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.”

It would be a trite not to mention that Thomas More’s fellow traveler Johannes Ludovicus Vives should be credited as the pioneer of an assured minimum income. He put together a holistic scheme and evolved a pervasive rationale for it premised both on scriptural and practical templates.

In a missive to the Mayor of Bruges in 1526, entitled De Subventione Pauperum (On the Assistance to the Poor), he recommended that the civic administration should be charged with the onus of both raising and apportioning a minimum sustenance for all its inhabitants, not on grounds of justness alone but for a more effectual exercise of ethically necessary compassion. The aid arrangement would be efficaciously directed at the poor. To be entitled to access the aid, an indigent person’s poverty must not be unmerited, for he must demonstrate his gratitude for the assistance provided by showing his inclination to labor.

However, at about the turn of the 18th century an unusual notion evolved that was to play a pervasive part in the mitigation of destitution all across Europe. The person who delineated the idea was the mathematician and political activist, Antoine Caritat, Marquis de Condorcet. After having played a conspicuous role in the French revolution, Condorcet was imprisoned and sentenced to death. While in prison, he wrote his most seminal work, the Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain.

He wrote and I quote, “There is therefore a necessary cause of inequality, of dependency and even of misery, which constantly threatens the most numerous and most active class of our societies. We shall show that we can to a large extent by removing it, by opposing luck to itself, by securing to those who reach old age a relief that is the product of what he saved, but increased by the savings of those individuals who made the same sacrifice but died before the time came for them to need to collect its fruit; by using a similar compensation to provide women and children, at the moment they lose their husbands or fathers, with resources at the same level and acquired at the same price, whether the family concerned was afflicted by a premature death or could keep its head for longer; and finally by giving to those children who become old enough to work by themselves and found a new family the advantage of a capital required by the development of their activity and increased as the result of some dying too early
to be able to enjoy it. It is to the application of calculus to the probabilities of life and to the investment of money that one owes the idea of this method. The latter has already been successfully used, but never on the scale and with the variety of forms that would make it really useful, not merely to a handful of individuals, but to the entire mass of society. It would free the latter from the periodic bankruptcy of a large number of families, that inexhaustible source of corruption and misery.”

This distinct idea one century later inspired the genesis and elaboration of Europe’s gigantic social insurance systems commencing with Otto von Bismarck’s old age pension and health insurance schemes for the labor force of unified Germany 1883 onwards. Though not pointed solely at the poor and encompassing enormous transfers to the non-poor too, these initiatives rapidly began having a colossal impact on poverty alleviation. Their proliferation rapidly dwarfed public assistance programs and demoted them to a secondary status.

Thus, conceptually, Universal Basic Income (UBI) stretches far back in time but it has never ever been implemented in a country the size of India. Given that the people have been put through acute economic distress over the past five years, it is an idea whose time has come.

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