Stability and sharing: basic income in history

During a visit to Amsterdam last year, I was struck by the huge throngs of people from all over the world visiting the Vincent Van Gogh museum. Apparently I was one of 2.1 million visitors in 2016.

I couldn’t help wondering what the artist himself would have made of those crowds. Famously, his attempts to make a living from his art were unsuccessful, and he was plagued by self-doubt which probably contributed to the severe mental illness that eventually claimed his life.

Thankfully though, his brother believed in his potential. Indeed – as you’ll hear if you visit the museum and listen to the commentary – were it not for a modest income that Van Gogh’s brother provided to him, the vast majority of his work would probably never have seen the day. All those paintings which have become so famous would never have existed.

Would the world be a diminished place without them? Presumably the huge crowds of people at the museum, who are willing to pay 17 euros a head to see the originals, think so. Whatever your view of his art, there’s no arguing with the crass truth that thanks to Van Gogh’s paintings, the museum took in revenue to the tune of €55.5 million last year.

Basic income is generally discussed as though it’s something hypothetical that has never existed in the real world, apart for a few recent trials here and there. However, if we define it as unearned income that enables a person to meet their basic needs, we can see that basic income of one kind or other has in fact existed for a fair few people throughout history. Some of them have made use of their financial independence to do interesting things. Here is a quick list drawn up from Wikipedia:

Blaise Pascal lived entirely off his family’s income until his death in 1632 at age 39. He used his financial freedom to pursue his many interests. “His earliest work was in the natural and applied sciences where he made important contributions to the study of fluids, and clarified the concepts of pressure and vacuum….Pascal also wrote in defence of the scientific method.” He was an important philosopher and found time as well to invent the bus line.

Jane Austen: as a middle-class European woman in the early 19th century, Austen would not have been permitted to hold down most jobs. Luckily her father and brothers supported her financially throughout much of her life. She had various household duties which took up some of her time, but had sufficient time and intellectual energy left over to work on her novels, as well as access to paper and ink. (There’s a nice article here – really a book review – on why it’s a good idea to read Jane Austen.)

Harriet Beecher Stowe also never held a formal paid position in her life. In adulthood, before her success as a novelist, she survived off her husband’s salary as was the norm for married middle-class women of her day. Her book Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a major stimulus to the anti-slavery movement worldwide and it remains the second-most translated work in the world after the Bible. (Abraham Lincoln stated that the book was responsible for the Civil War in the US, which is admittedly a mixed blessing, but the war did at least end slavery there). There’s an interesting discussion of the book’s enormous influence here.

Florence Nightingale’s wealthy family disapproved of her pursuing her interests but nonetheless her father “gave her an annual income of £500″ (much more than a basic income in those days, but she didn’t live extravagantly). She was responsible for the professionalisation of nursing and the promotion of public health measures which have saved many millions of lives over the past century and a half. She was also responsible for “helping to abolish prostitution laws that were over-harsh to women, and expanding the acceptable forms of female participation in the workforce,” as well as being “a pioneer in the graphical representation of statistics”.

Srinivasva Ramanujan: It doesn’t seem too much of a stretch to me to suggest that this Indian mathematician received a type of basic income at a crucial period of his life. After years of barely scraping by in poverty he was eventually hired as a clerk for the Madras Port Trust. As Wikipedia puts it, “At his office, Ramanujan easily and quickly completed the work he was given, so he spent his spare time doing mathematical research.” This research culminated in his eventually being invited to work at Cambridge University, despite having no formal qualifications. During his short life he “made substantial contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions, including solutions to mathematical problems considered to be unsolvable.”

More recently, JK Rowling is famous for having been a single mother dependent on social welfare at the time she was writing the first Harry Potter novel. Needless to say, the UK government’s support for her has paid itself back rather well: Rowling, who is probably a billionaire, pays the top tax rate in the UK, and Harry Potter is bringing enormous sums into the UK economy and is apparently worth 4 billion pounds to London alone. And for those who believe that Harry Potter is just worthless pulp fiction, here’s some interesting evidence that reading Harry Potter makes young people more empathic.

I’m sure there are plenty more people who could be added to this list – it was thrown together quickly and I would love to hear about other examples.

It’s interesting to note that it’s skewed towards the female. Some of this is owing to historical cultural norms: since educated woman weren’t supposed to hold professional jobs until relatively recently, those who managed to make meaningful contributions to humanity that went beyond their traditional role were often reliant on unearned income. But in more recent years, single mothers like Rowling have benefited from the welfare state.

The list is also skewed towards people of European heritage, partly because European countries were monetised earlier than many others, and partly because there were more records kept from Europe.

Let’s just finish by returning to Van Gogh for a minute and speculating on what might have been. Sadly, it seems that one of the triggers for Van Gogh’s suicide may have been the news that his brother was planning to quit his job and set up his own art firm, which, as the website of the Van Gogh museum puts it, “also had implications for Vincent’s financial situation.”

Who knows – if Van Gogh had been more financially stable, perhaps he wouldn’t have been sent over the edge at the age of 37, and there would be many more of his paintings for us to appreciate.

And who knows how many other people all over the world could make significant contributions to humanity if there was a basic income. A little financial stability could make all the difference.

For a thoughtful discussion on how basic income could democratize creativity, see here. Basic Income Ireland has a page on how basic income could support artists here.

Featured image taken from Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh.

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One Reply to “Stability and sharing: basic income in history”

  1. Yes – beautifully put. Historically, practical anxieties which erode creativity, have been particularly pernicious to women & today, basic income could liberate what’s surely the primal creativity, which is motherhood.

    Virginia Wolf, who needed neither allotted time nor money, had plenty of both to liberate the creativity in (possibly her best book), A Room of One’s Own.

    Today, all of us have responsibility to find roads towards lives which mitigate climate change. The beauty of that enterprise plus the enabling sufficiency of basic income may be a marriage which the future may applaud more loudly than we applaud the beneficence of Theodore Van Goch!

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