Thomas Paine, the American Revolution, and … Universal Basic Income?

There probably isn’t much that Elon Musk and left-wing anarchist David Graeber have in common. If you’re familiar with both, you might consider them complete diametric opposites. Musk has formed several multi-billion dollar companies; Graeber has dedicated his life to anti-capitalist organizing, one of the main organizers of the Occupy Wall St. protests. 

But funny enough, there is at least one issue they both voice support for: the need for a universal basic income. Both have argued that if automation continues on its current path, so many jobs will be lost that some form of UBI will become a necessity to prevent social collapse. I admit I find Musk’s commitment to UBI questionable, but his lip service to the issue shows that as an ideal, UBI stretches way beyond the intellectual fringes.

But UBI isn’t just the latest en-vogue thing that entrepreneurs are talking about, although it sometimes seems that way. In fact, UBI stretches far back into history. As a concept, it dates at least to the 16th century when Thomas More wrote Utopia (1516). But Utopia was based on an imaginary island, rather than a concrete plan for society. As far as I know, American revolutionary Thomas Paine was the first who took the next step and developed the earliest actual plan for achieving a primitive form of UBI. 

Thomas Paine

Paine is of course a well-known name. His legendary pamphlet Common Sense (1776) helped lead to America declaring independence from Britain, and his opus The Rights of Man (1792) is a crowning achievement of Enlightenment philosophy. But I find many people are unaware that he wrote anything else. 

One of his later writings is a little pamphlet called Agrarian Justice.* Published in 1797 and presented to the French revolutionary government, Paine outlined a system that, when analyzed, bears a striking resemblance to modern social security and UBI plans. Having a look at it shows that in many ways, Paine was way ahead of his time.

Paine’s Justification

For Paine, the need for UBI was justified by the operation of land in a civilized society. In a primitive** society, land is common property. No individual owns plots of land. But as civilization progresses, property and land is concentrated. The rise of private property is a key feature of modern civilization. Paine doesn’t think this is necessarily a bad thing. As he wrote, “Cultivation is, at least, one of the greatest natural improvements ever made by human invention. It has given to created earth a tenfold value.” (419) 

But there are drawbacks to this progression. The result was that “landed monopoly” had “dispossessed more than half the inhabitants of every nation of their natural inheritance, without providing for them, as ought to have been done, an indemnification for that loss.” (419) Essentially, private property cut people off from their traditional access to common lands, leading to the poverty that Paine witnessed in Europe.

That was the crux of Paine’s argument. He wasn’t denying that concentrated land holdings were productive, and he wasn’t an antimodernist who wanted to go back to prehistoric times. Like many others, he saw the huge productive increase of privatized land as a benefit to humanity. But it was one that came with costs. Land was no longer common property, leaving many people without a means to support themselves. For that, landowners owed a rent to society as a repayment for denying people access to the common lands. This formed the first part of Paine’s justification.

The second part of Paine’s justification was an early view that wealth was socially created. “Seperate an individual from society, and give him an island or a continent to possess, and he cannot acquire personal property.” “All accumulation, therefore, of personal property beyond what a man’s own hands produce, is derived to him by living in society.” (428) People’s demand is the only thing that gives value to a manufacturer’s goods or a farmer’s produce. Without them, there’s no wealth. So someone “owes, on every principle of justice, of gratitude, and of civilization, a part of that accumulation back again to society from whence the whole came.” (428)

An early print of Agrarian Justice

Again, Paine didn’t think that civilization was a bad thing. Like many Enlightenment thinkers, he thought the progress of civilization was a positive benefit for society. But there was a caveat. For Paine, the point of civilization was to benefit the human race. Therefore, “the condition of every person born into the world, after a state of civilization commences, ought not to be worse than if he had been born before that period.” (417) By sacrificing their access to common lands, people living in a society should be better off than if they were living in a primitive state. Paine looked at the landless, poor working class of Europe and concluded that no, they were not better off than primitive peoples. Society needed some remedy to this problem.

Paine’s Plan

Paine’s answer was recapturing the benefits of common access to land. As he said, landowners owed a rent to society for their use of once-common property. He proposed the creation of a common fund. This fund served two purposes:

  1. That all persons shall receive 15 pounds upon turning 21
  2. That all persons over 50 shall receive 10 pounds per year

I’m not an expert in this field, but from what I’ve found, in 1800 average annual wages for British men were around 12 pounds and around 8 pounds for women. So Paine was proposing a system that would pay in the vicinity of a year’s salary to all people over 50.

As he writes, there are several ways to create such a fund. What he viewed as the least disruptive method was an inheritance tax. That way, “the bequeather gives nothing; the receiver pays nothing.” (421) For direct heirs to property, he proposed a 10 percent inheritance tax. For more distant heirs, with less connection to their deceased family member, a greater tax would be applied.(423) 

Though Paine wasn’t a mathematician, he ran some calculations. Using the population and national wealth of England at the time, he concluded that this form of taxation would easily create a fund large enough to cover his proposed plan in that country. 

As Paine said of his plan, “It is not charity but a right — not bounty but justice.” (425) This wasn’t a handout, but a principle required in a society based upon private property. As Paine said, his plan was overall better for society. Rather than caring for people after they’d already fallen into poverty, “Would it not, even as a matter of economy, be far better to devise means to prevent their becoming poor,” he asked. “This can be done by making every person, when arrived at the age of 21 years, an inheritor of something to begin with … With this aid they could buy a cow and implements to cultivate a few acres of land; and instead of becoming burdens upon society … would be put in the way of becoming useful and profitable citizens.” (426)

Final Thoughts 

Though it seems revolutionary, Paine’s plan is rather conservative. Unlike some socialist/communist positions that would emerge a bit later in the 19th century, Paine’s plan leaves private property intact. The only difference is that some of the wealth produced on that property will be gathered and distributed among society. 

I also say it’s not radical because Paine’s proposed system probably reminds you of something – Social Security. Essentially yes, Paine outlined a system of social security to take care of the eldery (50 was pretty elderly in the 1790s) when they reached retirement age. Although we don’t discuss it as such, Social Security is a form of UBI, just reserved for people of a certain age. So if Paine’s plan struck you as odd or radical, keep in mind that we currently practice a large part of it. The only difference is that rather than inheritance, the common fund for Social Security comes from people’s wages.

I can’t say where discussions will go in the future. But clearly we’ve been talking about universal basic income for a long time. As automation picks up and more jobs are lost, perhaps conversations of UBI will rise in the future. 


*The citations here come from Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, Common Sense, and other political writings, Oxford Press, 1998. The pamphlet is digitized here:

**I understand it’s loaded to use the term “primitive.” I don’t condone the usage, I’m rather using Paine’s own language here.

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