Scientifically and technologically, the world is in flux bordering on chaos. Every day brings something new: a new discovery, a new device, a new technique, a new cure. The pace of change is dizzying; we scarcely know where we stand. Yesterday’s novelty is today’s norm, tomorrow’s anachronism.

Striking by contrast is the intellectual paralysis in other fields of human endeavor. Nineteenth-century capitalism rules our economies, 19th-century democracy governs our politics. Spiritual nourishment, for most of us, depends on religions thousands of years old. Modification there has been, but no upheaval. When is the last time you heard a startlingly new political, economic, religious or philosophical idea?

The idea we consider here is startling, but not really new — only its slowly growing respectability is. Cranks and visionaries have been playing with it for centuries. The name by which it’s lately known is not calculated to grab your attention. It almost seems calculated not to. “Basic income”: Who would see a potential revolution in that?

And yet it’s there, scarcely a centimeter beneath the surface. Here’s the definition provided by the Basic Income Earth Network, founded in 1986 to “foster informed discussion on this topic throughout the world.” Basic income, says its website, “is an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement.”

That simple little sentence flies blithely in the face of everything we thought we knew, millenniums of conventional wisdom, from the Biblical “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread” to the grim 20th-century warning to idlers, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Might the conventional wisdom be wrong?

Basic income sounds Utopian. It is. Thomas More foreshadows it in “Utopia” (1516), whose fictional voyager to the imaginary ideal island inveighs against the English practice of hanging thieves and says, “It would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood.” Four hundred years later, the British philosopher Bertrand Russell (in “Roads to Freedom: Socialism, Anarchism and Syndicalism,” 1918) called for a “universal basic income” under which “a certain small income, sufficient for necessaries, should be secured to all, whether they work or not.”

The French economist and philosopher Andre Gorz (in “Critique of Economic Reason,” 1989) sets the scene in terms of our own time: “The connection between more and better,” he argues, “has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently . . . or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact . . . “

The conclusion he draws is, “The work ethic ceases to be viable in such a situation, and work-based society is thrown into crisis.”

The notion of work as the moral as well as practical underpinning of society is so deeply ingrained in most of us that it hardly seems open to question. Even Karl Marx, the father of revolutions and revolutionary aphorisms, demanded “from each according to his abilities” before giving “to each according to his needs.”

But new times corrode old certainties. The weekly Shukan Economist, no den of starry-eyed leftists, devoted nine pages of its Sept. 21 issue to a sympathetic treatment of basic income. A key point is the shocking rise of the “working poor.” Forty years ago, talk of one Japanese child in seven living in poverty would have horrified people as a reminder of the benighted past, not as an augur of the high-tech, globalized future that is in fact our present. Far from retreating, poverty is spreading, and work, in a sickly and glutted economy that assures neither stable employment nor a living wage, is no cure for it.

Granted all that, and granted we can learn to accept the controversial premise that the mere fact of being alive entitles us all to the material minimum required to sustain life, where is the money to come from? If the economy can’t sustain the working poor, can it sustain the nonworking, even down to those who are too lazy to find and hold a job? To say nothing of the rich and the hyper-rich, for a key tenet of basic income is its absolute universality.

Yes, it can, maintains economist Yutaka Harada in Shukan Economist. He calculates it this way: Children and the elderly already receive allowances, so we’re talking about that part of the population aged 16-64: roughly 81 million people. Figuring a basic income of ¥70,000 a month, the total annual cost would be 81 million times ¥70,000 times 12 ¥68 trillion. Subtract from that the various subsidies the government would cease to pay out under the plan: for public works, small enterprise, farmers and so on. Factor in as well the nullified tax exemptions that now apply, for example, to workers with dependent spouses. In the final analysis, Harada claims, basic income would cost almost nothing.

Are we on the brink of the 21st century’s first tech-unrelated revolution?

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.