Peoria, Illinois, In Search of Robert G. Ingersoll, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln, Part 1

Abraham Lincoln portrait head, cast of Gutzon Borglum model for Mount Rushmore at Tower Park, Peoria Heights. Other versions of this sculpture are at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, the Lincoln Tomb, and the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Peoria, Illinois, July 28th, 2017

I awake in a spotlessly clean, perfectly comfortable, aggressively unimaginative Motel 6 hotel room on the north end of Peoria, Illinois. I’ve noticed that Motel 6’s are much better than they used to be when I was a child and young adult, at least in terms of cleanliness and amenities. They were never glamorous, but they now have less character. For many years, for example, the beds sported these wonderfully colorful blankets printed with stylized images of famous cities and landscape features all over the United States. Now, the rooms and draperies are beige highlighted with rust-orange, furnished with the plainest of midcentury-style designs, angular objects only occasionally relieved by a sleek curve here and there.

My term for this sort of accommodation is ‘people storage’: strictly utilitarian, uninspired, and uninspiring. Perhaps that’s a good thing for my purposes: I fled the room as soon as I could to place myself in a more interesting environment. Still, I’m irritated as I so often am with modern architecture and interior design. Why have we stopped bothering to go on artistic flights of fancy, then directing the inspirations found there towards making these beautiful?

Abraham Lincoln portrait head near the Gold Star Memorial at Tower Park, Peoria Heights, IL

My first destination is a quick stop to see a bust of Abraham Lincoln at Tower Park in Peoria Heights, IL. It’s a cast bronze derived from a plaster model by sculptor Gutzon Borglum for his most famous work, the Mount Rushmore National Memorial sculpture in the Black Hills. Here, it’s mounted on a grooved stony concrete pedestal near a Gold Star Memorial dedicated to the families of slain soldiers. I’ll be visiting the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield soon so I’ll see the original plaster cast there. More about this sculpture to follow.

Courthouse Square, Peoria, Illinois, ca. 1845. Peoria Public Library. Peoria would have looked like this for most of the years Lincoln visited. It had grown and changed quite a bit, however, by the time Robert Ingersoll moved here in 1857 and Frederick Douglass spoke here for the first time in 1859.

Lincoln was a regular visitor to Peoria, first visiting in 1832 to buy a canoe on the way home to New Salem from serving briefly as a captain the Black Hawk War (his election to this position by the men of his company was among the proudest moments of his life), and many more times throughout his legal and political career. His first campaign speech was also in Peoria, in 1840, during a Whig rally for Presidential candidate William Henry Harrison. There’s no record of what he said there that day, but many accounts of his early speeches describe a man initially hesitant and shy, whose eloquence increased as his confidence did. Peoria is the site of one of his greatest oratorical triumphs; I’ll tell the story once I reach the site where it occurred.

Plaque at the base of a flagpole dedicated to veterans in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois. Glen Oak Park is at the site of Camp Lyon, a Union recruitment and training camp for the Civil War

My second destination is pretty Glen Oak Park, lush with trees and large green lawns. I enter the park via the west entrance at Prospect Road and McClure Ave and park under the trees along the large oval central green. It’s hot and humid today, but there’s just a little breeze in addition to the plentiful shade, which helps a lot. There are two things that bring me here, both associated with the life of one man.

Robert G. Ingersoll, 1833 – 1899 was a colonel in the Civil War, a lawyer, a politician, and most famously, an orator. Born in Dresden, New York, he lived in Peoria from 1857-1877. Ingersoll was often called ‘The Great Agnostic’ for his trenchant and eloquent critiques of religion. He was also an abolitionist, women’s rights advocate, and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine as a great American hero. Thomas Paine made a clear and eloquent case for the cause of American independence from Britain in his best-selling 1776 pamphlet Common Sense, then as the Revolutionary war struggled on, helped inspire patriotism and perseverance with his The American Crisis series. Paine’s once-stellar reputation suffered over time, especially after his publication of The Age of Reason, an attack on orthodox religion, and his vociferous criticism of diplomat Silas Deane and George Washington.

Ingersoll agreed with Paine’s criticism of Washington. He thought that Paine was right to be aggrieved with Washington’s decision to do nothing to deliver him from his captivity and sentence of death by the radical French Revolutionaries under Robespierre. After all, Paine was condemned for opposing the execution of King Louis XVI, who had been an ally of the American Revolution and who had provided invaluable aid to Washington in the war. Paine also criticized Washington’s support for the institution of a state church in Virginia, which, of course, Ingersoll would oppose as well. Ingersoll used his own eloquence to help rescue Paine’s memory from disrepute and reinstate him as one of the moral and intellectual founders of the United States of America. Lincoln shared Ingersoll’s enthusiasm for Paine: in his twenties, he wrote an essay defending Paine’s freethinking and his deism. Lincoln was a religious skeptic himself, a nonbeliever as a young man who became a non-denominational theist over time.

The only known image of Ingersoll addressing an audience, Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, public domain via Wikimedia Commons. Note the Thomas Paine banner hanging above Ingersoll.

Lincoln held similar sentiments to Ingersoll about Paine. In his twenties, he wrote an essay defending Paine and his deism, which his friend burned so that it could never be found and published. Lincoln had political ambitions already, and his friend, probably correctly, predicted it could derail any run for office he might take. Then, as now, real or at least assumed religious belief is a prerequisite for a successful political career, despite our legal commitments to freedom of conscience and belief. Lincoln was a religious skeptic himself, a nonbeliever as a young man who became a non-denominational believer over time. God entered his writings and discourse ever more often throughout the years though tellingly, not so for Jesus Christ specifically. Lincoln preferred, for the most part, to keep the particulars of his religious beliefs private.

Colonel Robert G. Ingersoll in his uniform, early 1860’s

The West gate of Glen Oak Park is the approximate site of Camp Lyon, where Ingersoll was commissioned as colonel of Union Army in 1861 and where he raised his Union regiment. His first experience in battle was in the Battle of Shiloh, a particularly bloody engagement and a Union victory. He conducted himself well and was commended for his excellent service in many battles during the next year and a half. He resigned on June 30th, 1863; he had been captured then placed in charge of a camp of paroled prisoners who could not fight as a condition of their parole unless they were exchanged for Confederate prisoners. This system of conditional parole and prisoner exchange was common practice at the time, I’m guessing because it saved a lot of money and resources for both sides in feeding and housing prisoners. Ingersoll waited for months for an exchange to happen so he could return to active service, but this exchange never came. So, he went home. Ingersoll thought he could be more returning to his law practice and entering politics than continuing to wait around for something that might never happen.

While he was still in the field, Ingersoll wrote some very compelling, descriptive accounts of the battle, as did his fellow soldier who fought at the battle of Shiloh, Ambrose Bierce. Ingersoll’s contemporary accounts were in letters to his brother; Bierce’s account ‘What I Saw of Shiloh’ was written when he had become an experienced writer, published in 1881. If you haven’t read Bierce’s Shiloh account, I very, very highly recommend it. Bierce was a journalist and prolific writer in many genres. He’s also the author of The Devil’s Dictionary and many other wonderful and skeptical satirical works, I think sometimes on the level of as well as in the spirit of Voltaire. He was a great admirer of Ingersoll, as was poet Walt Whitman, who was also Ingersoll’s personal friend. I’ll return to Ingersoll and Whitman’s relationship in the next installment of my Ingersoll account. Bierce included Ingersoll in his delightfully irreverent poetic definition of the term Decalogue:

Thou shalt no God but me adore:
’Twere too expensive to have more.
No images nor idols make
For Robert Ingersoll to break.
Take not God’s name in vain; select
A time when it will have effect.
Work not on Sabbath days at all,
But go to see the teams play ball.
Honor thy parents. That creates
For life insurance lower rates.
Kill not, abet not those who kill;
Thou shalt not pay thy butcher’s bill.
Kiss not thy neighbor’s wife, unless
Thine own thy neighbor doth caress.
Don’t steal; thou’lt never thus compete
Successfully in business. Cheat.
Bear not false witness— that is low—
But “hear ’tis rumored so and so.”
Covet thou naught that thou hast not
By hook or crook, or somehow, got.

Robert Ingersoll statue in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Plaque on the sculpture of Robert G. Ingersoll at Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

I continue south and a little east through the park on winding paths and roads, past playgrounds, fields, and a lagoon. I’m headed toward the statue and monument to Ingersoll near the southernmost end of the park at Abington Street and Perry Avenue.

It’s a handsome statue, portraying Ingersoll in his maturer years as a portly man with a very round belly. As far as I could tell from photos, Ingersoll was never particularly slim, though he was more so when he was younger and I think when he was in his last year or so, based on facial portraits. His fleshiness gave him a very youthful look for most of his life, and I think a cheerful one. Especially then, being on the fatter side indicated that you led a happy life of plenty. The face of his statue, tilted slightly downwards, appears more serious than any photo I’ve seen of him in his later years. This, with his arms-akimbo stance, can at first glance seem an almost stern portrayal, as if he’s looking at you or something just beyond you reprovingly. But after studying the sculpture, I think it’s meant to convey Ingersoll in deep thought, perhaps walking back and forth with his hands on his hips as so many of us do when we’re working out some problem in our own minds, or when trying to recall some important fact or idea. Most photos of Ingersoll show him with a little smile on his lips, highlighted by his somewhat dimpled mouth and cheeks. He has the face of a ready and kindly friend.

Bradley & Rulofson, “Robert Green Ingersoll,” Chronicling Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

I drive next to Peoria Historical Society’s Flanagan House Museum at 942 NE Glen Oak Ave. I had emailed their office yesterday in hopes of making an appointment but haven’t heard back yet. My research revealed that they have a portrait of Ingersoll on display. Since it’s close enough to being on my way to my next destination, I swing by to see if someone happens to be around. No such luck.

I continue on to the Local History and Genealogy Collection at the Peoria Public Library, 107 NE Monroe street. There’s a manuscript there by Romeo B. Garrett called The Negro in Peoria, I believe the only or one of very, very few copies, in which I’m seeking more details than I have about Frederick Douglass’ visits to Peoria. This manuscript served as Garrett’s doctoral dissertation, I believe. Dr. Garrett was the first African-American professor at Bradley University.

The people who work in this collection are very helpful, particularly Chris Farris, who is there most of the time I am. I find nearly everything I’m seeking and more that I didn’t know to look for. Thank you, Chris, for all the help and interesting conversation! You’re the best.

I spend several fascinating hours here and discover much about Ingersoll, Lincoln, and Douglass in Peoria. My time in this city is a rich one, and I visit so many places linked to interesting stories that I’ll break this up into a two- or three-parter. The next will begin with the sites I visit once I leave the library. To be continued…

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Bierce, Ambrose. ‘What I Saw of Shiloh.’ 1881

Blassingame, J. (Ed.). The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. 4 volumes, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979-1999

Burlingame, Michael. Abraham Lincoln: A Life, Volume 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, November 2012

Bust of Lincoln – Peoria Heights, IL – Abraham Lincoln‘, posted by NoLemon on Waymarking.com

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Douglass, Frederick. The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881.

Garrett, Romeo B. The Negro in Peoria, 1973 (manuscript is in the Peoria Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Collection)

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

History of Dr. Romeo B. Garrett.‘ Bradley University website.

Hoffman, R. Joseph. ‘Robert Ingersoll: God and Man in Peoria‘. The Oxonian, Nov 13, 2011

Jacoby, Susan. The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought. New Naven: Yale University Press, 2013.

Kelly, Norm. ‘Peoria’s Own Robert Ingersoll‘, Peoria Magazines website, Feb 2016

Leyland, Marilyn. ‘Frederick Douglass and Peoria’s Black History‘, Peoria Magazines website, Feb 2005

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois. Website, National Park Service

Mcmillan, Brad. ‘Lincoln’s Strong Ties to the Peoria Area‘, Peoria Magazines website, Feb 2012

Nelson, Craig. Thomas Paine: Enlightenment, Revolution, and the Birth of Modern Nations. New York: Viking Penguin, 2006.

Peoria City‘ from Peoria County Atlas 1873, Illinois. Published by A. T. Andreas in 1873, posted in Historic Map Works

Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854‘. Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois website, National Park Service

Robert Ingersoll Collection. From Chronicling Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Robert Green Ingersoll Family Papers, 1854-1970 (bio)Chronicling Illinois, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library

Simon, Paul. Lincoln’s Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years. University of Illinois Press, 1971

Smith, Edward Garstin. The Life and Reminiscences of Robert G. Ingersoll. New York: The National Weekly Publishing Co, 1904

Swaim, Don. ‘The Blasphemer Robert G. Ingersoll and Why He Mattered to Ambrose Bierce.’ 2012, Donswaim.com

Wakefield, Elizabeth Ingersoll, ed. The Letters of Robert Ingersoll. New York: Philosophical Library, 1951

The Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, W. Virginia, July 24th, 1899. From Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Library of Congress

Happy Birthday, Robert Ingersoll!

Statue of Robert G. Ingersoll in Glen Oak Park, Peoria, Illinois

Robert G. Ingersoll, orator, lawyer, politician and Civil War veteran often called ‘The Great Agnostic’, was a very famous man in his time but rather forgotten today. He was born on August 11, 1833 and died almost 66 years later. Among other things, he was a vocal and consistent advocate for abolitionism, women’s rights, freethought, and scientific progress. While very liberal and broad-minded, he was a dedicated family man. While his views are as progressive as could be for a person if his time, he was what we might call a square. Besides his unabashed and very public religious skepticism, he lived a life that even Victorian standards would consider altogether blameless, despite frequent attempts to discredit his views through uncovering some hint of scandal.

He was a great friend of many of the era’s most interesting and influential people including Walt Whitman and Thomas Edison, who made two recordings of his voice with his new invention, the audio recorder.

He was also an admirer and promoter of the memory of Thomas Paine. Though Paine was a founding father of the American cause for independence with his great pamphlet Common Sense and other writings, he had long fallen out of favor in American public memory following the publication of The Age of Reason, his diatribe against religious orthodoxy and superstition, as he perceived it.

In the time Ingersoll enjoyed fame as an orator, freethought ideas had become more acceptable as a matter of public discourse. It was still generally unacceptable to be an out-and-out atheist, but even these could become popular speakers if they were eloquent and interesting enough. In fact, they were often considered novel and exciting, and free speech was enjoying one of its heydays in the United States in this period sometimes called The Golden Age of Freethought. This was a time when public speakers provided a very popular form of entertainment. Many of that era’s important thinkers and activists made their living, or much of it, through public speaking: Ingersoll himself, abolitionist and civil rights leader Frederick Douglass, and feminist, atheist, and civil rights activist Ernestine Rose among them. Rose was also a famous orator in her day, pre-dating Ingersoll by almost a generation but like him, eloquent, witty, and a champion of Paine. She generally spoke only of topics related to her social justice causes, but Ingersoll and Douglass, like many famous orators, spoke on a wide range of topics such as Shakespeare (both men were big fans), science, politics, and much more.

In fact, I have a great anecdote to share that involves both Ingersoll and Douglass, but I’ll share it with you very soon in another article or two. Ingersoll is one of the subjects of my current history of ideas travel project, and I have a wealth of notes, photos, and memories to share with you about my recent trip following Ingersoll’s life and ideas in Peoria, IL. As soon as I’m settled in Edinburgh, my new home city for at least the next year, I’ll write it up. I have some great information and stories about Douglass and Abraham Lincoln there, too.

Stay tuned!

Please also see my review of Susan Jacoby’s excellent biography The Great Agnostic: Robert Ingersoll and American Freethought

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!

Thomas Jefferson by Charles Bird King, 1836, after Gilbert Stuart, at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. Photo 2016 by Amy Cools

In remembrance of Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) on his birthday, I’ll share my tributes to his memory, his life, and his ideas: my traveling philosophy / history of ideas series

To Washington DC, Virginia, and Philadelphia I Go, In Search of Thomas Jefferson

and

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson

and my thrilling interview with Clay Jenkinson, Jefferson scholar, last year

Interview with Clay Jenkinson as Thomas Jefferson

I hope you enjoy following me as I follow in the footsteps of Jefferson!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

New Podcast Episode: On the Recent Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate About Basic Income

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail)
This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.: The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.
The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many

Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.:  The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.

The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many circles for co-authoring The Bell Curve, and labor leader Andrew Stern. These two make surprising debate partners, but of course, that’s part of the fun!

The debaters against the motion are Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economic advisors to the Obama administration, and both more on the liberal / progressive end of the economic spectrum, which also adds to the interesting contrasts between audience expectations and the arguments made…. Read the written version here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

 

On the Recent Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate About Basic Income

The Moneylender and his Wife by Quinten Massijs (detail)

This weekend, on the BART ride to San Francisco and on the walk to and from my destination there, I listened to this fascinating debate on Intelligence Squared U.S.:  The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. (It’s also available as a podcast.) It was so thought-provoking that my walk turned into a rather long one, as I stopped every few blocks to sit down and scribble some notes in response to what I heard.

The debaters in favor of the motion are the libertarian political scientist Charles Murray, infamous in many circles for co-authoring The Bell Curve, and labor leader Andrew Stern. These two make surprising debate partners, but of course, that’s part of the fun!

The debaters against the motion are Jared Bernstein and Jason Furman, both economic advisors to the Obama administration, and both more on the liberal / progressive end of the economic spectrum, which also adds to the interesting contrasts between audience expectations and the arguments made.

Here’s the summary of the debate from the IQ2 website:

Imagine getting a check from the government every month. $600 guaranteed. It’s happening in Finland, where a pilot program is being launched to test what’s known as a “universal basic income.” As technology transforms the workplace, jobs and income will become less reliable. The idea is that a universal basic income could serve as a tool to combat poverty and uncertainty in a changing society, and provide a cushion that empowers workers, giving them latitude to take risks in the job market. But some argue a guaranteed income would take away the incentive to work, waste money on those who don’t need it, and come at the expense of effective programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Is the universal basic income the safety net of the future?

I’ve written about basic income before in light of Thomas Paine’s case for a social welfare system, broadly distributed to the point that we’d call it basic income today, in his pamphlet Agrarian Justice of 1796. I’m broadly sympathetic to the case for basic income especially insofar as I’m convinced by two of his major arguments.

One, Paine argues that the right to private property is not an intrinsic right or derived from nature, or even from moral convictions about deservingness or our duties toward those less fortunate. Rather, property rights are artificial rights we’ve created for efficiency’s sake: it’s a way to incentivize people to be as productive as possible to the benefit of both individual and society. But whatever efficiencies property rights promote, Paine observes just as we observe now, they too often deprive people of the very thing they promise to provide. Economies based on property rights deny most people direct access to the world’s natural resources while sometimes failing to reward them proportionally.

This is true not only of those who produce the most necessary, useful goods and services such as growing and preparing food, building and maintaining our cities, towns, and homes, and caring for the disabled and sick; they are often the ones who receive the lowest wages. In the meantime, others who create such frivolous and even arguably harmful things as casinos, violent video games, and poor quality trinkets that become trash almost as soon as they’re made can often make money hand over fist. Some people are not able to make money even if they were willing: they may be disabled or aged, or the skilled work they’ve done all their lives becomes obsolete. Worst of all, those who raise children, care for the disabled and aged, and otherwise keep the home generally receive no pay, though their work benefits society most of all. The amount of money we can bring in generally determines the resources we have access to, so if we have no money, we have no property. Property rights, then, guarantee us the right to property without any consideration as to whether or not we actually end up be able to obtain or keep any. Therefore, Paine argues, we owe every person compensation for denying them their natural right to equal access to the world’s resources.

Two, Paine argues that a universal income is better than discretionary welfare, such as that based solely on need, because it prevents the inevitable jealousies and complaints of unfairness that can erode social cohesion and undermine mutual trust. If everyone starts out at the same basic level, we may not have all of the same chances in life just as we don’t now, advantages or disadvantages that we can’t do much about: we may have rich parents, poor parents, or none at all; we may be able-bodied or we may not; we may be beautiful, smart, or have other attributes that society rewards. But, we’ll all have the same basic chance that we can give one another: the freedom and well-being guaranteed by a basic level of economic security.

But back to the debate…. Why this digression, you might ask? I return to Paine because he makes the first sustained modern argument (that I’m aware of) in favor of a basic income and because his basic points, or closely related ones, are brought up throughout this debate. In the question and answer session, Andrew Stern refers to the way perceived unfairness, such as Paine discusses, has long politically undermined need-based programs, from publicly-funded unemployment benefits to health care insurance for those with low income. Stern also points out that many people already enjoy ‘undeserved’ basic income, such as those born to parents who can afford to provide it. If we have no problem with those people reaping the benefits of work they didn’t do, why not everyone? Charles Murray adds the element of personal responsibility to the question of perceived unfairness of needs-based welfare. If everyone were given the same basic level of resources, people could no longer justly claim victimhood for not having the same chances as everyone else. If we collectively provide the same benefits to everyone, we can hold people to a basic equal accountability for all who could work and contribute more than they do.

Murray, as you may guess from his emphasis on opportunities for traditional marriage and the preeminence of personal responsibility, is much more conservative than the other participants in the debate, and introduces a free market argument that many political conservatives might like just as well as pro-labor liberals and progressives. This argument is founded on the importance of competition in a well-functioning economy. To harness the benefits of competition, Murray proposes that if people have ‘walking – away’ money, employers will have to compete with one another for employees, and in doing so, they will have to innovate to make jobs appealing. Employers would have to offer good wages, provide a pleasant and safe working environment, and make the work seem meaningful and appreciated. This is a sort of competition that serves drives wages, standards, and productivity up, not sending wages and working conditions spiraling in the race to the bottom that so many unregulated job markets, mostly competing to lower prices, have exhibited throughout the history of capitalism.

Jared Bernstein repeats the argument throughout the debate, like a mantra, that a dollar given to someone that doesn’t need it is a dollar taken away from someone that does. Many in the audience seem to find this argument convincing, but I don’t, at least without much more justification than he provides. For one thing, neither Bernstein nor his debate partner Jason Furman addresses the vast expenditures of time and money of a bureaucracy required to administer large-scale need-based welfare. It’s expensive for government as well as for individuals, who are required to provide proofs of their need, which is multi-dimensional and subjective and therefore difficult and time-consuming to demonstrate. (Murray does address problems with this kind of bureaucracy, but he emphasizes its unpleasantness and the way it re-introduces a form of serfdom, creating a class of people whose freedom is limited by this system.) For another thing, neither Bernstein nor Furman directly addresses the fact that universal basic income would vastly expand the number of people with disposable income for the first time, much more vastly than needs-based programs do. Most of this money, in turn, would go straight back into the economy, rather than into the ever-inflating bank accounts of the ever-fewer, ever-wealthier wealthiest individuals who are now gobbling up an ever-larger share of the economic pie. Our targeted redistribution system has been entirely unable to resolve this inefficiency, and in fact, may exacerbate it.

The side arguing in favor of the motion, which, as I’ve already mentioned, I’m more sympathetic to for aforementioned reasons, does not, in the end, convince the audience. They’re handily defeated, as the side arguing against the motion not only convinces most of the undecided but also wins over some of the basic income supporters. I suspect that Murray hurts his side a bit by spending too much time on arguments that I think are beside the point, such as whether more people could afford to get married (it doesn’t have to be expensive!) and on very subtle, not-very-well expressed arguments that were lost among the rest. But I would like to hear another major debate in which basic income is supported by stronger arguments, more convincing answers to objections, and most of all, better evidence. As Stern points out, there are small-scale and short-term experiments in basic income happening all over, in Alaska, Finland, and Toronto, for example, but the results are not in yet. I agree that such a major social program should be rolled out with some caution, given the potential fallout from unforeseen as well as foreseen potential side effects. But perhaps smaller experiments can’t reveal the benefits that a complete reinvention of a large economy would reveal, especially if effectiveness is entirely a matter of scale. For example, such a well-balanced, sturdy, and beautifully functioning thing as a termite mound couldn’t happen without an incredibly large number of factors contributing, namely the weather, millions of termites, many square miles of dirt, and so on. If you took a small pile of dirt and a small number of termites, a well-functioning termite mound would not result.

Our American re-invention of government was another such experiment founded on the idea that people can govern themselves and on the ideal of universal human rights (the ideal, mind you, not yet the reality). Many societies before and for some time since had tried to correct abuses and oppressions with one reform here, one reform there, or with a wholesale chaotic and violent overthrow after societal cohesion had already collapsed through famine and extreme corruption (such as, famously, the French Revolution). But it took a large number of fair-minded people to come together and lay the foundation for an entirely new system of government based on the ideal that all human beings have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, or as John Locke originally formulated it, life, liberty, and property. Or in the case of universal basic income, to actual property.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and Inspiration:

Labor Theory of Property.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia

Locke, John. Two Treatises of Government, 1689

Paine, Thomas. Agrarian Justice, 1796.

Paine, Thomas. The Rights of Man, 1791.

The Universal Basic Income Is The Safety Net Of The Future. Intelligence Squared U.S. Debate, March 22, 2017

Happy Birthday, Thomas Paine!

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Statue of Thomas Paine by Gutzon Borglum, 1938, Parc Montsouris, Paris, photo 2015 by Amy Cools

Let’s remember and salute the great Thomas Paine, father of our American identity, on his birthday. Born on January 29th, 1737, his great pamphlets made the case for American independence from Britain, outlined his Lockean conception of human rights, and argued for the primacy of reason in epistemology, politics, science, and theology. He’s a primary influence in my own concept of America as a bastion of liberty, of reason, of freedom of conscience, of the idea that property rights entail the obligation to share our wealth with those who lack what they need.

Here are a few links to some articles and works of art by, about, and inspired by Thomas Paine, including some of my own work.

Common Sense – Thomas Paine (1776)

The American Crisis – Thomas Paine (1776-83)

The Rights of Man – Thomas Paine (1791)

The Age of Reason – Thomas Paine (1794)

Agrarian Justice – Thomas Paine (1795-96)

Thomas Paine – from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

To Paris, France I Go, In Search of Revolution-Era Thomas Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Thomas Jefferson – history of ideas travel series in which I follow Thomas Paine’s life and ideas in the era of the French Revolution

Thomas Paine on Basic Income, and Why Welfare is Compatible with an Individualist Theory of Human Rights – my essay on how Paine’s ideas about property rights led him to advocate the unconditional allocation of public funds for the support of the young, the old, and the disabled

Pretty Pink Rose – David Bowie and Adrian Belew (1990) – ‘She tore down Paris on the tail of Tom Paine, but the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane’

As I Went Out One Morning – Bob Dylan (1968) ‘As I went out one morning to breathe the air around Tom Paine’s, I spied the fairest damsel that ever did walk in chains’

Tom Paine’s Bones – Graham Moore (1995) Recorded by Dick Gaughan in 2001. ‘Well they say I preached revolution but let me say in my defence, all I did wherever I went was to talk a lot of Common Sense’

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Basic Income: Scotland & Beyond, by Kallum Corke

4ef8b-moneycountingpaydayImagine, for a moment, that you received enough money each month to cover all of your basic needs – no strings attached, regardless of whether or not you chose to work.

What would you do?

The ‘radical’ idea that none of us should have to work to survive is the basis of the Universal Basic Income (UBI), a monthly stipend payable to every person, regardless of how they choose to spend their time. Designed to replace existing, means-tested benefit and create a stable ‘economic floor’ under each individual, UBI offers a range of advantages over our current welfare system. For starters, the single, unconditional payment would do away with the expensive means-testing and sprawling bureaucracy that currently distributes benefit, actually saving money. Other benefits (among many) include increasing individual bargaining power in an increasingly exploitative and precarious labour market, rewarding women’s ‘invisible labour’ in the home, facilitating entrepreneurship and stimulating innovation, oh – and of course, eradicating poverty outright.

Basic Income is a resurgent economic idea with a surprisingly long history; advocated by Thomas Paine (who argued for payments to every person “rich or poor” financed by a “ground-rent” paid by property owners) and Friedrich Hayek, (who believed a basic level of economic security would greatly increase individual freedom) among other famous advocates from both the left and right of the political spectrum, it has been tried in various forms throughout history. Experiments in Canada and the U.S. in the 1970s and Uganda in 2008, for example, have explored the idea of a guaranteed income (or, a negative income tax in the U.S. example). While the methods have varied, the results have generally been similar: increased school attendance among children, improved overall health, increased entrepreneurship and a slight reduction in hours worked.

And these experiments aren’t confined to the past – with renewed public and political interest in Basic Income come new studies, with governments in Finland and the Netherlands committed to pilot programmes over the next few years and this month’s historic referendum in Switzerland. In Scotland, on the 13th of May, Professor Guy Standing, author of The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class and international advocate for Basic Income, gave a speech to the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) in Scotland where he argued that:

“It’s the year of the pilots, and that is why I would appeal to all of us in this room and many others in Scotland, to take the lead… I don’t mind the motive, but we need pilots and Scotland with the SNP’s new commitment to move in this direction has a fantastic opportunity to do something like this. It’s desperately needed and Scotland could set an example and if it does, I think you’ll see a fire of copycats. It’s something we all must encourage.”

Professor Standing is right; with pilot programmes launching across the world, the time is ripe for a Scottish experiment – and with a Scottish parliamentary majority comprised of Greens, actively advocating for a basic income and a Scottish National Party amenable to the idea, there has never been a better time to push for a Scottish study. Scotland’s unique characteristics, population density, GDP and economic diversity make it an ideal candidate for a national pilot.

The idea has been criticised as ‘utopian’, ‘unrealisable’ and fundamentally unaffordable – but with around sixteen percent of the Scottish population estimated to be living in poverty, a continued rise in reliance on food banks across the country and with ‘jobs growth’ under the current government confined to precarious, zero-hours positions in jobs soon to be lost to automated labour, it’s fast becoming a question of whether we can afford not to implement a basic income.

Recent scandals, such as the Panama Papers leaks (which I wrote about for my last Darrow piece) have demonstrated that the world’s financial and political elite, who preach austerity at every opportunity, are the very reason basic income seems so unaffordable. There are a great many ‘routes’ to financing a universal basic income, from a land or financial transaction tax to simply forcing businesses and individuals, hiding an estimated $32tn offshore, to pay their fair share in tax. And therein lies the greatest challenge on the road to basic income: not affordability, but attitudes towards poverty and social responsibility. The same individuals who hide their assets from the taxman, denying us hospitals, roads, and education, feed us a narrative which vilifies the benefits claimants as scroungers, even though poverty has proven systemic, structural and often, inescapable.

The money to pay for basic income exists, in one form or another, just out of reach.

The Panama Papers were a symbol of ever-increasing global inequality, a world in which the richest 1% of society now has as much wealth as the other 99% combined. Universal Basic Income has the potential to redress the balance and to resolve some of the most pressing issues of our time; to eradicate poverty, to more equitably reward women for their work, achieve the mythical fusion of Capitalism and Socialism and to future-proof our economy, just in time for ‘the rise of the machines’, providing each of us with the basic necessities of life and affording us the luxury of aspiration.

Basic Income is an idea whose time has come – and Scotland, were it to implement a pilot programme of its own, has the potential to kick-start a global movement.

So I’ll ask again: What would you do if your income was guaranteed?

Kallum Corke is a filmmaker, writer and visual artist whose varied creative output is chiefly concerned with issues of social justice, politics, arts and culture. (Bio credit: Darrow) Follow the author at @kallumcorke

This article was originally published on Darrow. Read the original article.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!