Universal Basic Income: Will It Solve AI Job Disruption?

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Julia McCoy

Creator and Co-founder

untold history of UBI

Could providing a universal basic income really work?

For centuries, the concept of universal basic income (UBI) has been debated and dismissed as a utopian fantasy.  But as we enter an era of unprecedented technological advancement, could UBI be the answer to the looming threat of widespread job displacement?

Let’s explore the fascinating history of universal basic income, examine the potential benefits and drawbacks, and consider whether it could be a viable solution for a future transformed by automation.

A Look Back at Universal Basic Income

Believe it or not, the idea of universal basic income is far from new. The first whispers of UBI can be traced back to the 16th century. Thomas More, a renowned English lawyer and social philosopher, introduced the concept in his book “Utopia” in 1516, proposing a world where everyone had access to the resources needed for a decent standard of living.

Later, in 1797, American visionary Thomas Paine, in his renowned pamphlet “Agrarian Justice”, advocated for universal basic income as a form of social security to address the inequality arising from private land ownership. Paine believed that a basic income would compensate for losing access to natural resources that land ownership created.

Early UBI Experiments: From Success to Sabotage

Fast forward to the 20th century and the idea of a guaranteed income plan started to gain traction. Economists and social reformers saw it as a way to create a more equitable society.

In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. and Canada launched a series of UBI pilot projects, hoping to study its real-world impacts. One notable experiment took place in Manitoba, Canada, known as “Mincome.”

The Mincome experiment revealed some surprising and encouraging results. The program led to a notable decrease in hospital visits and improvements in mental well-being among recipients. It also showed increased school attendance rates, suggesting that financial stability allows families to prioritize education.

However, not all UBI trials have been portrayed accurately. In the 1970s, President Nixon championed a form of basic income with his proposed Family Assistance Plan (FAP). While initially designed as a true UBI program, political maneuvering resulted in the addition of work requirements. Ultimately, these compromises contributed to the bill’s failure to pass, leading to our current complex and often criticized welfare system.

Another significant example of misrepresented UBI results comes from 18th-century England. The Speenhamland system, an early form of basic income implemented in Speenhamland, England, was deemed a failure due to biased reporting.

While official accounts blamed the program for increased poverty and idleness, later investigations revealed that these findings were misleading and based on incomplete data. Sadly, the flawed Speenhamland system has been used repeatedly to discredit the concept of UBI, despite evidence to the contrary.

Could Universal Basic Income Work Today?

The question remains, in a world hurtling toward an automated future, can we afford not to reconsider universal basic income? The rise of artificial intelligence and automation is poised to revolutionize the labor market, potentially leaving millions without traditional jobs.

As machines become increasingly capable of performing tasks once thought exclusive to humans, it is critical to consider alternative economic models.

Universal basic income could offer a safety net. By ensuring everyone has a baseline income, UBI could potentially mitigate the social and economic upheaval of mass job displacement.

Some argue that UBI could stifle motivation, leading people to become reliant on government assistance. However, many UBI advocates point to the evidence suggesting otherwise.

Studies have shown that people who receive a basic income are no less likely to work. In fact, some studies suggest that UBI can lead to entrepreneurialism, with individuals using their basic income to start businesses or pursue education.

Economist Milton Friedman even supported a version of basic income in the form of a negative income tax.

The Future of Work and the Potential of UBI

The concept of universal basic income has sparked global debate. While some view it as a necessary adaptation to a changing world, others remain skeptical. Exploring the potential benefits and drawbacks of UBI in an informed and nuanced way is essential to envisioning a future where technology serves humanity, not the other way around.

As we face a future of work potentially reshaped by automation, it’s crucial to consider how a universal basic income might impact various aspects of society.

Here are some potential benefits and drawbacks:

Potential Benefits of UBI:

  • Poverty Reduction: UBI could provide a safety net, ensuring a minimum income for all citizens and potentially lifting millions out of poverty.
  • Reduced Income Inequality: By providing everyone with a basic income, UBI could help bridge the gap between the rich and poor, fostering greater economic equality.
  • Improved Health Outcomes: Studies, like the Mincome experiment, have shown that basic income can lead to better health outcomes, likely due to reduced stress and improved access to healthcare.
  • Increased Entrepreneurship: With a financial cushion, individuals may be more likely to take risks and start their own businesses, potentially boosting the economy.
  • Greater Educational Attainment: UBI could enable people to invest in their education and skills training, leading to a more skilled workforce.

Potential Drawbacks of UBI:

  • Cost: Implementing a universal basic income program would require significant government spending, potentially leading to higher taxes or cuts in other social programs.
  • Inflation: A sudden influx of cash into the economy could lead to inflation, reducing the purchasing power of the basic income over time.
  • Job Market Effects: There’s debate about how UBI might affect the job market. Some worry it could disincentivize work, leading to labor shortages. Others argue it could empower workers to negotiate for better wages and working conditions.
  • Implementation Challenges: Determining the appropriate level of basic income and setting up an effective distribution system would be complex and potentially prone to errors or abuse.
  • Political Feasibility: Gaining political support for such a significant policy change would be challenging, as it requires a fundamental shift in thinking about the role of government in providing for its citizens.


As artificial intelligence and automation transform the very fabric of work, exploring solutions that prioritize human well-being becomes paramount.

Could universal basic income be the answer?

The evidence, though debated, points toward a potential future where a guaranteed basic income not only protects against economic turmoil but unlocks human potential and drives innovation.

As we venture further into uncharted territory, considering the role of UBI in shaping a more just and equitable future is no longer a luxury but a necessity.

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