Paris. February, 1846. A man stops to watch the police drag away a young, painfully thin boy in rags. Under the boy’s arm: a loaf of bread. Not the Parisian baguette of today; French bread in the nineteenth century, at least the commoner’s fare, was black, hard, and heavy, with a grey mealy interior. Even that, for most, was too expensive.
Victor Hugo went home and began writing these famous lines:
‘A very hard winter came. Jean had no work. The family had no bread. No bread literally. Seven children!’
The start of Les Misérables.
Hugo would dedicate his life to fighting poverty. It was not just a moral issue, he claimed, but a practical one as well. His argument was not new; three centuries before him, philosopher Thomas More wrote:
‘No penalty on earth will stop people from stealing, if it’s their only way of getting food. […] it would be far more to the point to provide everyone with some means of livelihood, so that nobody’s under the frightful necessity of becoming, first a thief, and then a corpse.’
– Thomas More, Utopia
With that, he was hinting at the first scheme for a Universal Basic Income.