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Universal Basic Income conference

Cambridge historians Pedro Ramos Pinto, Peter Sloman and sociologist Daniel Zamora brought together a range of academics as well as Basic Income campaigners in a one-day conference supported by the Faculty of History.

Universal Basic Income – the idea of an unconditional, non-means tested regular cash payment to everyone in a society – has once more emerged as topic of debate about the future of welfare and citizenship. It is one of those rare ideas that finds equally fervent support in parts of the right and left, mobilizing both radical ecologists and Silicon Valley millionaires. Although the term ‘Universal Basic Income’ dates back only to the 1970s, variants of the idea have emerged at least as far back as Tom Paine’s ‘national fund’ proposed in the pamphlet Agrarian Justice (1796), were widely discussed in interwar Britain, and appeared in different format as Milton Friedman’s negative income tax idea.

But why have basic income-like ideas emerged at particular times and contexts in history, only to recede in others? Who was considered to be entitled to such rights – what hidden conditionalities were (and are) there behind the unconditional? What problems were and are its different proponents trying to address, and what do these tell us not only about the idea of Basic Income, but about the historical contexts in which it is proposed?

ubi conf
The conference’s closing round table, with contributions from leading UBI campaigners.L to R: Peter Sloman, Phillipe Van Parijs, Eduardo Suplicy, Malcolm Torry, Louise Haagh. Photo © Daniel Zamora

To answer some of these questions, Cambridge historians Pedro Ramos Pinto (History), Peter Sloman (POLIS) and sociologist Daniel Zamora (Université Libre de Bruxelles) brought together a range of academics as well as Basic Income campaigners in a one-day conference supported by the Faculty of History. Throughout a lively day of discussion, the conference explored fascinating topics including how the spectre of automation first drove US debates on Basic Income in the 1960s, or the intermingled histories of apartheid and liberation in South African cash transfers, or debates within 1970s feminism for an against basic income proposals. This successful conference is the beginning of further collaborations, and the organisers are aiming to use it as the basis for a landmark publication on the history of universal basic income.