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Pat MurphyPerhaps it is true that if you wait long enough, old ideas become new again – at least in the case of a guaranteed annual income.

There are a number of variations to the idea but the basic gist is that everyone would be guaranteed an income by the state. Rather than having to belong to a designated group or have a specific condition in order to qualify, merely being alive would suffice.

Forty years ago, the guaranteed annual income was a hot public policy topic. Journalists wrote editorials and columns about it, intellectuals waxed profoundly on its merits and politicians talked it up as the obvious antidote to poverty.

When he was president of the United States, Richard Nixon even proposed a version of it. However, under sustained pressure from right and left – conservatives found his plan too expensive and liberals considered it too stingy – Nixon ultimately abandoned the field.

Now, after decades of dormancy, the idea is back. Finland is considering a pilot project, several Canadian jurisdictions are interested, the Labour Party in the U.K. is making encouraging noises, and Switzerland has just conducted a referendum on it.

Interestingly, the mid-20th century impetus is generally attributed to the famous American right-wing economist Milton Friedman. Always a libertarian at heart, Friedman had a distinct aversion to government bureaucrats telling people what to do with their lives, so his solution to poverty was to give cash to the poor and let them decide how to best use it.

And another libertarian, controversial political scientist Charles Murray, is one of today’s most prominent American proponents. Writing recently in The Wall Street Journal, Murray characterizes his proposal as a universal basic income (UBI), and envisions it as nothing less than a complete replacement for the current welfare state.

That last bit is critically important. For Murray, as for Friedman before him, the key to an affordable guaranteed basic income is that it wouldn’t be layered on top of existing welfare arrangements.

Murray is very specific about what would be abolished: “The UBI is to be financed by getting rid of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, Supplemental Social Security Income, housing subsidies, welfare for single women and every other kind of welfare and social-services program, as well as agricultural subsidies and corporate welfare.” In the process, the legions of professionals who manage and administer those services would also be dispensed with.

And therein lies a problem, something that’s often present in sweeping intellectual proposals: the critical underlying assumption is totally disconnected from grubby reality.

There’s absolutely no way that the vast numbers of people employed in administering these social services are going to quietly fold their tents and disappear. They have good jobs and, often, professional credentials. They also have families, mortgages, commitments and lifestyle aspirations. And like the military-industrial complex that former U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower spoke of more than a half-century ago, they’ll fight tooth and nail to preserve the programs on which their livelihoods depend.

There are other issues, of course. By eliminating the pretence of any work requirement, UBI formally shreds a key component of the social contract. An old Rudyard Kipling poem expressed it succinctly: “And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: If you don’t work you die.”

Murray recognizes the issue. Rather than dismissing it, he chooses his own formulation. “The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse.”

He doesn’t think it would. His rationale, which is shared by the National Post’s Andrew Coyne, is that the current system already discourages welfare recipients from working by sharply reducing benefits if they take a job.

Still, longer-term, the implications of discarding the social contract are simply unknowable.

As for the Swiss, they didn’t have much difficulty deciding what they thought, at least for now. When the votes were counted, almost 77 percent said No to the proposal for an unconditional basic income.

But I’d lay odds that we haven’t heard the end of this idea. Not by a long stretch.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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