Some 503 years ago, the English humanist and lawyer Sir Thomas More wrote Utopia, describing an ideal society that contrasted with the highly unequal social conditions that prevailed in his time. Referring to the routine hanging of petty larcenists, his protagonist remarks: “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.”
The concept of a minimum income guaranteed by the government has been translated into myriad assistance schemes since then. The vast majority are means-tested: Only the poorest qualify and benefits decline the moment their economic situation improves.
Recently, in reaction to the vertiginous increase in wealth inequality and growing fears that robots will soon replace all workers, various types of universal basic income – from schemes that provide money for every citizen to assorted guarantees of minimum income for those who need it – have come to the fore. They usually involve the government providing a guaranteed living wage to every resident, with no strings attached.
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