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History of Political Economy 33.3 (2001) 459-484

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The Enigmatic Legacy of Charles Fourier:
Joseph Charlier and Basic Income

John Cunliffe and Guido Erreygers

The origins of the idea of a “basic income” remain to be fully explored. An idea with currency mainly in Europe, a basic income is conventionally defined as an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, irrespective of the level of any income from other sources, and without any work requirements. In this article we examine the completely neglected contribution of an elusive Belgian, Joseph Charlier, to the spasmodic history of proposals for a basic income and its cognates. Although crucial aspects of the basic income approach have been traced back to at least the eighteenth century, the conventional belief is that the first fully fledged scheme was formulated in 1919 in England by Dennis Milner under the name “state bonus.”1 We demonstrate that Charlier [End Page 459] presented a surprisingly modern basic income scheme as early as 1848 and then advocated it in other works over some fifty years.

Despite being reticent about his intellectual ancestry, Charlier acknowledged an initial but not uncritical sympathy with Fourierism. The general affinity between the idea of a basic income and the Fourierist notion of the minimum—that is, a minimum presumably paid in kind—has been indicated in some of the limited discussions of the intellectual origins of the idea, but apparently not subjected to any sustained analysis.2 This article analyzes Charlier's scheme and its intellectual pedigree in detail. In the first section, we consider Fourier's view of the minimum and demonstrate that it differed considerably from a modern basic income. The next section reviews the association between the idea of the minimum and the doctrine of the right to work in the thought of Fourier's leading disciple, Victor Considerant. We then examine Charlier's proposals and show that they constitute a genuine basic income scheme that is distinctive and significantly different from its Fourierist precursors.

Charles Fourier

The suggestion that Charles Fourier was an early proponent of a basic income scheme has been made most clearly by G. D. H. Cole. In his History of Socialist Thought, Cole (1953–60, 1:310) explained John Stuart Mill's sympathy for Fourierism as follows:

Mill did, however, regard as much nearer practicability those forms of socialism which, at a sacrifice of idealism, accepted a moderate degree of economic inequality. On this score he praised the Fourierists, or rather that form of Fourierism which assigned in the first place a basic income to all and then distributed the balance of the product in shares to capital, talent or responsibility, and work actually done.

Mill himself apparently did not use the phrase “basic income” in his writings on Fourierism. Instead he preferred the more vague expression “a certain minimum”:

The most skilfully combined, and with the greatest foresight of objections, of all the forms of Socialism, is that commonly known as [End Page 460] Fourierism. This system does not contemplate the abolition of private property, nor even of inheritance; on the contrary, it avowedly takes into consideration, as an element in the distribution of the produce, capital as well as labour…. In the distribution, a certain minimum is first assigned for the subsistence of every member of the community, whether capable or not of labour. The remainder of the produce is shared in certain proportions, to be determined beforehand, among the three elements, Labour, Capital, and Talent. (Mill [1848] 1965, bk. 2, 211–12)

A close textual examination reveals that Mill's characterization is without any doubt the more accurate of the two. In this section we show that Fourier's minimum is certainly not a basic income in the modern sense.

The idea of a social minimum, that is, a minimum of goods determined by the level of subsistence, appears in all of Fourier's major works, both published and unpublished.3 We find it in the Théorie des quatre mouvements ([1808] 1966–68); in...


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