Public Square & Theology 101

If Technology Is Going to Destroy Jobs, Is UBI the Answer?

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Mark Zuckerberg wants to give you money, but it’s not his money!

In a recent Harvard commencement address, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg joined other major technology figures to advocate for universal basic income (UBI). With the rise of new technology, like driverless cars, which many fear will destroy millions of jobs here in the United States, these Silicon Valley tech leaders think the solution to a future with fewer jobs is free money for all.

UBI is simply the idea that the government gives all citizens or residents of the country a regular, unconditional sum of money independent of any other source of income. Advocates argue that the UBI has the potential to reduce poverty and expand individual freedom.

UBI is not a new idea. Thomas More mentions it in his 1516 book Utopia. And over the last 500 years, different versions of this idea have been proposed by Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mill, Bertrand Russell, Milton Friedman, Martin Luther King Jr., Friedrich Hayek, and Richard Nixon. In the late 1960s, the Nixon administration not only studied the idea but unsuccessfully tried to get it through Congress.

UBI 2.0

Even in today’s polarized political climate, UBI has support on both sides of the political spectrum. The political left perceives UBI as a social justice issue—a way to combat poverty, inequality, and redistribute wealth—as well as a potential solution to soften the blow wrought by the “Creative Destruction“ of today’s technology. To those on the political right, the idea is a device to help reduce or eliminate a bloated government social-welfare system.

What would the cost to the US government be to enact UBI? Estimates range from $539 billion per year to over $3 trillion. The actual amount depends on a host of factors: How much does every person receive? Does everyone get the same amount? What government welfare program does it replace, if any? Etc.

One of the most intriguing proposals for a national UBI was suggested by conservative Charles Murray, who writes:

The UBI has brought together odd bedfellows. Its advocates on the left see it as a move toward social justice; its libertarian supporters (like Friedman) see it as the least damaging way for the government to transfer wealth from some citizens to others. Either way, the UBI is an idea whose time has finally come, but it has to be done right.

Murray proposes that American citizens aged 21 and older get a $13,000 annual grant paid in monthly installments. Recipients would be required to use $3,000 of the grant to pay for their health insurance. The plan would replace many welfare and social-services programs and eliminate the agencies and staff that run them.

Murray claims if his plan had been in place in 2014, it would have been $200 billion cheaper than current social service programs and the savings by 2020 would be nearly a trillion dollars.

Murray argues that a system like his,

…is our only hope to deal with a coming labor market unlike any in human history and that it represents our best hope to revitalize American civil society.

What’s the Fine Print?

While this proposal sounds reasonable, there are many who believe not all of the suggestions around UBI will work.

What Vivek Wadhwa writes in the Washington Post is fairly typical:

UBI will not solve the social problems that come from loss of people’s purpose in life and of their social stature and identity—which jobs provide.

The Swiss agree that uncoupling income from work is not the answer. They voted down a referendum in 2016 for a proposed national basic income by almost 77%.

Oran Cass, in his article in National Review, suggests that even if UBI were viable,

…it (UBI) should be rejected on principle. A UBI would redefine the relationship between individuals, families, communities, and the state by giving government the role of provider. It would make work optional and render self-reliance moot.

What’s the Takeaway for Christians?

Some might say that supporting those impacted by the coming automation tidal wave is too big for the church; the government needs to step in. Sadly, the role of caring for the sick, poor, and oppressed in our nation has largely been usurped by the government.

The problem may be too big for individual churches, but it’s not too big for the Church, capital “C”. The Body of Christ in all sectors of society, from business leaders and engineers to academia and public policy experts, needs to come together to find solutions that affirm human dignity and the intrinsic value of work.

But we need to balance the call to charitably support those negatively affected by the market (among others) with a reminder about the biblical imperative to work.

The Apostle Paul writes in his second letter to the Thessalonians, “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Greek in the original text emphasizes the word unwilling. Paul is not talking about the sick, handicapped, or even the unemployed. He is saying that those who could but would rather not work, should not eat. Paul is not only giving them a rule to live by but is also underlining the larger principle about the importance of work. Ultimately, this is a loving imperative aimed at seeing the idle person live into all they were designed to be, not bury their talents in the ground.

The Bible teaches that we are made to work (Gen. 2:15). And Tim Keller reminds us in Every Good Endeavor, “…work did not come in after a golden age of leisure. It was a part of God’s perfect design for human life.”  Today, many Christians have bought into the false cultural axiom that leisure is good, work is bad.

Yes, work is hard because of the curse in Genesis 3, but work was instituted before the fall from grace. I make this observation in my book How Then Should We Work:

Today the church needs to embrace the truth of the biblical doctrine of work. It is one of the most important gifts God has given us to influence the world and to find deep satisfaction in our lives here and now. “What does the worker gain from his toil?…I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God” (Ecclesiastes 3:9, 12-13).

According to my reading of scripture, an unwillingness to work is best not reinforced by the state. And UBI, like other entitlement programs, could reinforce or condone an unwillingness to work—no matter the efficiency improvements to the current system it promises.

Part of our calling as Christians is to be active members of these discussions impacting the communities—the family, friends, and neighbors—around us. Our mission at IFWE is not to take policy positions, but to provide sound biblical and economic principles that should inform our positions.

Regardless of your position on UBI, given God’s design of creation and his desire for flourishing of the interdependent parts, we all can play a role by helping someone else discover and use their God-given gifts.

Editor’s Note: Get 25% off Hugh Whelchel’s How Then Should We Work: Rediscovering the Biblical Doctrine of Work in the IFWE Bookstore. Use code: WORKBLOG25 – Offer ends 8/31/17. 

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