The Reason Why Even Richard Nixon Supported Basic Income

Alex Gourevitch and Lucas Stanczyk have an important essay in Catalyst (paywalled) questioning the plausibility of proposals for a basic income (a sum of money paid regularly to all citizens, regardless of their means or their employment status). They argue that a meaningful basic income could only be funded through a huge confiscatory redistribution of wealth, with the strategic implication that a basic income cannot be won “until there is a working-class constituency that is organized and powerful enough to be able to extract it, in spite of the predictable resistance of superbly organized capital.” Therefore, the basic income idea cannot substitute for older models of working-class organization (unions and parties) capable of exerting the force required for radical social transformation.

Reading their essay, I was reminded of America’s closest brush so far with the basic income. Proponents often point to Richard Nixon’s Family Assistance Plan (proposed in 1969 and finally defeated in Congress in 1972) as evidence that basic income was once, and could become again, “a bipartisan, practically universal consensus.” These claims usually neglect to mention an important reality. Nixon’s support for an income guarantee came only as the result of massive social upheaval (in the form of urban riots). Once the cities stopped burning his administration instantly came to regard the idea as unaffordable and unnecessary.

This interpretation is supported by the contemporary statements of policymakers as well as the work of scholars including  James W. Button, Brian Steensland, and Leland Neuberg. Here is Nixon advisor Daniel Patrick Moynihan, in The Politics of a Guaranteed Income (1973):

In 1965 there had been four major riots and civil disturbances in the country. In 1966 there were twenty-one major riots and civil disorders. In 1967 there were eighty-three major riots and civil disturbances. In the first seven months of 1968 there were fifty seven major riots and disturbances . . . . In retrospect the domestic turbulence of the United States in the late 1960’s may come to appear something less than cataclysmic. But this was not the view of the men then in office. Mayors, governors, presidents took it as given that things were in a hell of a shape and that something had to be done.

… 

The events leading to and from the proposal of FAP have a conceptual unity that admits of separate treatment as a long range development in social policy. The proposal was made, however, as part of an over-riding short term strategy to bring down the level of internal violence.

Urban disorder all but ceased in the summer of 1969, while by 1971 the topic itself had receded from public attention.

But in the winter of 1968-1969, as the administration changed, no government could foresee this decline in overt violence, and even had that been possible, a responsible Administration would have had to regard the period as breathing space at most.”

H.R. Haldeman, Nixon’s chief of staff, wrote in his diary in July 1970 (that is, before the bill had failed in Congress but after “urban disorder all but ceased”):

“About Family Assistance Plan, [Nixon] wants to be sure it’s killed by Democrats and that we make a big play for it, but don’t let it pass, can’t afford it.”

In summary, the Nixon administration embraced the idea of a basic income at a time when it seemed that the social costs of failing to do so would be catastrophic. Once “internal violence” had abated (after an identifiable discrete period of intensification) the calculus changed and a more conventional attitude on work and income reasserted itself.

The Nixon-Moynihan view of the urgency of the ghetto uprisings was shared by liberals, including LBJ economic advisor Arthur Okun, who wrote: “the threat of holocaust in our cities as a result of internal strife and injustice is being recognized as a greater and more disturbing danger than that of nuclear holocaust.”

This would seem to confirm Gourevitch and Stanczyk’s argument about the implausibility of basic income in the absence of much deeper anti-capitalist social forces. Arguably, the Nixon case suggests that their focus on “timeworn” questions of workplace organization could be supplemented by attention to other potential sources of leverage, i.e. “collective bargaining by riot” (Eric Hobsbawm’s phrase). The evanescence of the urban revolts, however, might just as easily be taken as further confirmation of the necessity of more durable vehicles for collective pressure.

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