Basic Income as a Strategy to Promote the Georgist Movement
Basic Income is having its third and largest wave of support. Georgism had a peak wave of support over 100 years ago. Why is Basic Income taking off now while Georgism is not?
August 5, 2017
Karl Widerquist, Ph.D.
Philosopher, Economist

Basic Income is having its third and largest wave of support in its history. Georgism has had one major wave of support, and it peaked more than 100 years ago. Why is Basic Income taking off now while Georgism is not? Why does an idea that excited people in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century fail to excite people today when the political climate—including increased attention to inequality and environmental issues—seems to be more favorable than it has been in 50 years?

I want to suggest one possible answer. Georgism has two parts: increased social spending and a tax shift toward resources and economic rents. The United States tried the first part of that during the Progressive era, the New Deal era, and the Great Society era, and the part we tried was the exciting part. What Georgists are left with is a policy-wonk-sounding idea for a tax shift. They can say that the failure to do this tax shift is part of the reason that increased social spending hasn’t lived up to its promise. But to get people to believe it, they have to make wonky technical arguments that make most people’s eyes glaze over.

Basic Income is generating excitement with the idea of a fundamentally different kind of social spending: redistribution in cash without paternalism or judgment. Georgists can make some wonky technical arguments about how best to finance that kind of spending, and these arguments are useful in the right circles.

But they have the option to use Georgist principles to make the Basic Income idea more exciting with a two-part argument along the following lines.

First, the people who have grabbed the earth’s resources owe you money. The people who are destroying our environment owe you money. The people who offer you insufficient wages and/or high rents owe you money because they control resources, and you don’t.

Second, this money will bring human emancipation, bestowing on workers the one thing they’ve always needed to enter the market as free individuals: the power to say no. Why is it that the labor market overwhelmingly involves the children of the rich giving the orders and the children of the poor taking the orders? Because people who are unfree to access the resources of the Earth directly for themselves have no choice but to work for the people who control resources. Until the people who own the resources start compensating the propertyless, our labor market will contain an unspoken element of coercion.

Of course, to make these arguments, Georgists will need to endorse a Basic Income or a Citizens Dividend as it is usually called when paired with Georgist taxation strategy, but it is an exciting argument that Georgists are uniquely able to contribute to. I’d love to see books and articles pairing these arguments for Basic income with particularly Georgist ideas about how to raise the revenue required.

-Karl Widerquist, Beautfort, North Carolina, August 3, 2017

Afterword: I fully support Basic Income. I’m sympathetic to many (though not all) Georgist ideas. What I presented above is merely an option. I’m not trying to tell Georgists that they all have to work on Basic Income. In fact, I’m as annoyed by Basic Income supporters telling Georgists they have to support Basic Income as I am by Georgists telling Basic Income supporters they have to support Georgism. Our efforts are best directed outward—toward converting people to one idea or the other—rather than inward—trying to bring people who are already working for one positive change into full agreement with a whole range of positions. We don’t need to convert each other. It’s not necessary for everybody to agree on everything. It’s not even necessary for everyone to work together for each to make a positive contribution. The drive for internal intellectual purity often contributes to the marginalization of movements. We’re all working for progress in our own ways.

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Karl Widerquist, Ph.D.
Philosopher, Economist

KARL WIDERQUIST, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of political philosophy at SFS-Qatar, Georgetown University, specializing in distributive justice—the ethics of who has what. He has published seven books, including "Prehistoric Myths in Modern Political Philosophy" (Edinburgh University Press 2017, coauthored by  Grant S. McCall), "Independence, Propertylessness, and Basic Income: A Theory of Freedom as the Power to Say No" (Palgrave Macmillan 2013), and "Basic Income: An Anthology of Contemporary Research" (Wiley-Blackwell 2013). He is a co-founder of the journal Basic Income Studies, the only academic journal devoted to research on Basic Income. Widerquist has published dozens of articles both in the popular media and in academic journals (such as Political Studies; the Eastern Economic Journal; Politics and Society; and Politics, Philosophy, and Economics). He holds two doctorates—one in Political Theory form Oxford University (2006) and one in Economics from the City University of New York (1996). He writes the blog "the Indepentarian" for Basic Income News.

He has appeared on or been quoted by many major media outlets, such as NPR’s On Point, NPR’s Marketplace, PRI’s the World, CNBC, Al-Jazeera, 538, Vice, Dissent, the  New York Times, Forbes, the Financial Times, and the Atlantic Monthly, which called him “a leader of the worldwide basic income movement.”