What would happen if we just gave people money?

Basic income has attracted a motley crew of supporters, spanning the ideological spectrum. Efficiency-minded libertarians like the idea of streamlining the bureaucracy of the welfare state. Silicon Valley techies hope a guaranteed income would cushion the blow as automation replaces human jobs. Those with a more utopian bent, such as the organizers of the Swiss referendum, want to open up more options, to let people create art and free the world of what Straub calls “bullshit jobs.”

Critics of the idea say it’s too expensive, would encourage people to stop working and possibly tank a country’s economy. It’s thought to be a political non-starter, too, especially in countries less wealthy and with less generous welfare states than Switzerland. And because basic income proposes a radical reform to the existing welfare system — one that many progressives, at least in the United States, have been defending tooth and nail over the last 30 years — it makes anti-poverty advocates nervous. Max Sawicky, a former economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in the U.S., outlined a progressive case against basic income in 2013, calling it a “distraction” from raising the minimum wage, guaranteeing full employment, rolling back Clinton-era welfare reforms and supporting unions — all policies, he argues, “more in keeping with our current system and our political culture.”

Both lovers and haters of basic income often miss an important point: We don’t have great data on how it would work or what would happen if it did. Similar policies were tested in both Canada and the U.S. in the 1960s and ’70s, but studies of their effects were either flawed or abandoned. “To be honest, a full long-term universal basic income has never been tried, let alone rigorously evaluated,” said Michael Faye, the co-founder and executive chairman of Give Directly, a nonprofit that has pioneered direct cash transfers to the extreme poor, primarily in Kenya and Uganda.

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