Très Bien


Basic Income (sometimes called Universal Basic Income or UBI) is the idea that everybody, every citizen or resident of your country (or of the world) deserves a subsistence level income. It’s an old idea that is becoming quite popular lately because of the changes being wrought by automation. A number of cities, regions, and countries from Canada to Kenya are testing UBI pilot programs. Last year, Hawaii became the first state of the union to pass legislation enabling government to devise a basic income program. Stockton, California, has a UBI pilot program financed by Silicon Valley.

A number of well-known tech entrepreneurs have expressed support for UBI, people such as Elon Musk, Andrew Ng, Ray Kurzweil, and Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes. Conservatives as well as progressives are interested in the idea. Proposals have gone by many names such as Citizen’s Wage, Negative Income Tax, and National Minimum. Pulling together all the disparate ideas is the aim of BIEN, or Basic Income Earth Network, a network of academics, policy-makers, and others who research and discuss the various plans.

The first mention of such an idea occurred in Thomas More’s Utopia, in the early 16th century. More’s friend, Johannes Ludovicus Vives, wrote that God created the gifts of nature “without surrounding them with walls and gates, so that they would be common to all His children.”  However, Vives expected the poor to work. In view of automation,  recent versions of Basic Income are unconditional, with no work requirement.

American revolutionary Thomas Paine advocated a form of basic income to compensate for the citizen’s “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.” Classical economist John Stuart Mill (who is sometimes claimed by modern-day libertarians) also showed support for the idea, saying in his Principles of Political Economy (1849):

In the distribution [of the produce of land and labor] a certain minimum is first assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labor.

UBI could replace a patchwork of poverty assistance programs while allowing people greater autonomy to make their own economic decisions. In the late ‘70s Richard Nixon was poised to introduce a Guaranteed Annual Income, but for various political reasons the plan failed to materialize. A version of Basic Income already exists in the Alaska Dividend which is a portion of oil revenues that is paid each year to every resident of Alaska. However, the amount varies and is far below what is needed for subsistence.

Over the past 50 years, Nobel economist James Tobin and many others have put forward plans for how to pay for a basic income. The following proposal by Scott Santens includes a number of such ideas:

Here are the some of the reasons that I support a Universal Basic Income. UBI would protect working people from the ups and downs of economic downturns. The USA has seen approximately 38 recessions since 1836, with especially severe crises in 1839-1843, 1857, 1873, 1893, 1907, 1918-1921, the 1930s Depression, and the 2008 Recession. All of these have involved widespread unemployment. The 2008 Recession is the only downturn that has occurred since there was a safety net, and it wasn’t enough of one to rescue everybody. When a family is forced to go for months without a paycheck, it may take them years to recover financially.

UBI would cushion periods of unemployment. It would also help people in their 50s and 60s who have a hard time finding work if they lose their job, and people with mild disabilities who are at a disadvantage in the labor market. It would reduce the number of homeless, many of whom work but do not earn enough to pay high rents in their area. Anxiety, depression, and substance abuse would most likely decrease and so would some kinds of petty crime and vandalism, if everyone felt that they were truly part owners of society.

Another reason to support UBI is this: young mothers (and parents generally) would not be forced to work outside the home when their children are infants and toddlers. They could choose to spend those important years with their children while living more modestly; or they could work part-time; or they could use the UBI to pay a competent and reliable nanny. I believe this option would greatly increase the number of individuals who start out life with a secure attachment to a caregiver, which psychologists say leads to mental health and resilience, although as many as 40% of us don't get it. 

Many people would start small businesses. Creatives—artists, musicians, inventors, writers, craftspeople—would have more choices. Perpetual students and free-lance thinkers could follow their bent. Who knows, there might be a flowering of culture, a Golden Age.   I don’t share the fears of conservatives that nobody would want to work. Many, perhaps most people would not be satisfied with a subsistence income.

In response to predictions of mass unemployment from automation, interest is increasing in the United States as well as abroad. UBI is the major plank in the platform of entrepreneur and 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang, who proposes a $1,000/month “Freedom Dividend" to all US citizens between the ages of 18 to 64. 

(Note: I am not making a political endorsement of Yang, but his ideas deserve serious consideration rather than a flip media response such as met and still meets Bernie Sanders who, by the way, has also said he favors UBI.)

Imagine a system of law very different from our own, that lasted for well over 1,000 years, and under which there were no prisons and virtually no executions. I’ve learned about the Brehon law by reading well-researched historical fiction, an engaging way to learn about the past. Instead of memorizing dates, you get a feeling of what it might have been like to live in some other century. You identify with the emotions of characters who have very different lives and points of view, but recognizable human personalities and problems.

Stories in the new and growing genre of ‘history-mysteries’ have the added fillip of suspense and a mental puzzle. I follow two such series of mystery novels about women who functioned as detective, lawyer, and sometimes judge under the Brehon Law in 7th century and 16th century Ireland.

The Brehon Law was based on community relationships and restoring the social balance. It was more of a tradition than a codified system based on past cases, and more like modern civil law (torts and contracts) than criminal law. It was about restitution rather than retribution.

Although medieval Ireland was dramatically different from modern America, this old tradition might still have something to teach us today, when the United States has the highest rates of incarceration in the world. When many poor people convicted of minor crimes are forced into a form of debt slavery.  And when this country is one of six nations that carry out 95% of all executions, and the others are China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iraq.

First, the Sister Fidelma mysteries, set in the 7th century, which have an international following: . These are authored by Peter Tremayne (pseudonym for Peter Berresford Ellis) who besides being a prolific writer is a historian who specializes in the Celtic past.

Sister Fidelma—a religieuse who renounces her vows in the course of the series—is a dalaigh or advocate in the courts of the Five Kingdoms of ancient Ireland. Both men and women may take the training required to become a dalaigh, a combination of lawyer and detective, or, in some cases, a Brehon (judge). Ireland at the time was a center of learning, and scholars came from Britain and the Continent to study in Irish schools associated with monasteries, prototypes of today’s universities.

Fidelma is a strong-minded woman, sister of the King of Munster, and she lives in a society that allowed women many rights and opportunities compared to the rest of Europe. In most of the stories she is accompanied by her colleague and eventual husband, the Saxon monk Aedulf. These are murder mysteries, but their complex plots relate to the social, political, and religious conflicts of the time. Ireland has been Christianized for only two centuries, and some people still hold to the Old Religion. Meanwhile, the Church in Rome is trying to bring its far-flung subsidiary churches to heel—which sometimes causes conflict with local customs. Priestly celibacy is one such idea coming from Rome and resisted by the Irish Church.

Here is how they handled criminal offenses. Early Irish society, based on clans, was very status-conscious. For legal purposes every individual had an ‘honor price’ based on earning power and the respect due to their position. The highest honor price attached to king, bishop, and the highest grade of poets.  If an individual harmed or killed another, the perpetrator and his kin owed the victim or his family the appropriate honor price. This compensation might be expressed as a certain amount of silver, or a certain number of cows. Compensatory law occurred in several early societies, and may be found in the Bible.

The second series about the Brehon law, by Cora Harrison, takes place almost nine centuries later, in the early 16th century. Mara, a Brehon or investigating magistrate, also leads a law school with eight or so students from ages eight to 18 who are learning to be lawyers or judges.  Most, but not all of them are boys. In the course of the series Mara marries King Turlough Donn, of the Burren  with its four main clans. She bears his child but continues her judging and teaching.

Most chapters in Harrison’s novels begin with a selection from the Brehon laws, which sometimes seem strange and sometimes amazingly progressive. In Laws in Conflict, the eighth Burren mystery, Mara takes a trip to Galway, a city state with a royal charter granted by Richard III, which is ruled by English laws. Mara discovers that a mentally ill man from the Burren, who knows no English, has been sentenced to death for stealing a meat pie in Galway, so she and her students set out to save him.

For a number of centuries under English law those who committed felonies, even children of nine or ten, were punishable by death. By contrast, under Brehon law, insane persons are not liable for their crimes, neither are children. In another century or two, the English law would prevail, as the English were convinced their system with its bloody punishments was far superior and more moral. In Blackstone’s famous Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765) he notes: “And yet, even in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the wild natives still kept and preserved their Brehon law.”

I believe the modern movement toward restorative justice captures the spirit if not the details of the Brehon law. Restorative justice is a theory of justice that focuses on repairing the harm to victims of criminal behavior. It usually involves a mediation between the victim and the offender, and often includes representatives of the wider community. ‘Circle Justice’ is a Native American version of this concept. Restorative justice can be transformational for all concerned.  


Key Words

Alaska Dividend, Andrew Yang, Automation, Thomas Paine, Universal Basic Income