Why basic income policy is implemented precisely now

By Onno Blom

The first appearance of the idea of a basic income can be traced back to the enlightened thinkers of the 18th century, but was introduced to the Western world most successfully in the 20th century by Milton Friedman. What Friedman proposed as a “negative income tax”, the idea of giving people unrestricted subsidy, has been ignored for most of history when it comes to policy. Interestingly, recently politicians have started giving in and momentarily 28 municipalities are experimenting with basic income. What factors can explain the current policy adaptation and why did it take so long?

Although the idea of basic income has been around for long, the popularity of it fluctuates. If we look at when the discussion on basic income increased, we see that this was particularly during times of recession. For example, during the 1980’s many politicians proposed social welfare based on a basic income, but large scale policy was never implemented due to lack of support. Comparably, the current rise in popularity started in 2013, when the consequences of the 2008 crisis were strongly felt.

Even when policy ideas are present and support is sufficient, implementation can sometimes lag behind. Pierson ascribes this to the “opacity of politics”: what the voters want is not always clear for politicians, and voting is only sporadically used. This means that even if their might have been public support for the idea of a basic income before 2013, politicians were simply not aware of it. It took a long list of publications and quite some media attention for left-wing parties to realize that there was major backing, on which they could respond to ensure political capital. A combination of both the fluctuation of popularity and opacity can explain why policy has lagged behind for many years, but is now catching up.