Public Square

The Universal Basic Income and the Theology of Work

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Automation is coming to a workplace near you. The result may be the displacement of about 1.4 million workers in Tennessee alone, according to a 2016 report from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. That number represented about half of the state’s current workforce.

In response, there are ideas afoot that include implementing a “universal basic income” (U.B.I.). According to Farhad Manjoo in a New York Times article, proponents of U.B.I. believe that “as computers perform more of our work, we’d all be free to become artists, scholars, entrepreneurs or otherwise engage our passions in society no longer centered on the drudgery of daily labor.”

This rather optimistic assessment of the outcome of U.B.I. sounds like paradise to some, but it should raise eyebrows from Christians who value work as an inherent good.

Is Some Work Unworthy of Humans?

One basic assumption behind the U.B.I. movement is that some forms of work are unworthy of humans. Manjoo cites venture capitalist Albert Wegner:

I think it’s a bad use of a human to spend 20 years of their life driving a truck back and forth across the United States. That’s not what we aspire to do as humans—it’s a bad use of a human brain—and automation and basic income is a development that will free us to do lots of incredible things that are more aligned with what it means to be human.

But what if doing work is part of what it means to be human?

There are indications from the very beginning of Genesis that humans are intended to work. Whether it is the cultural mandate (Gen. 1:28) or the more specific command to tend the Garden of Eden (Gen. 2:15), in the Christian tradition work seems to be inseparable from the human condition.

Indeed, that connection is deepened by the impact of the Fall on the created order. In part to remind Adam and Eve how their sin distorted the moral order of creation, God cursed the ground making their daily work toilsome (Gen. 3:17-19). The very sweat on their brows as they cultivated food and fought against thorns provided a lesson that until the cosmic restoration, this world is not the way it was intended.

Therefore, it does not seem necessary to believe that driving a truck across the United States is a waste of humanity. It may, perhaps, be the best way for a given person to show love for others and contribute to the network of exchanges that make a healthy economy flourish.

A Potentially Elitist Vision of Humanity

Wegner’s comments about wasting a human brain point toward a potentially elitist vision of humanity. This vision seems to undermine a robust understanding of the imago Dei.

There are certain people gifted with the ability to use their minds in amazing ways for the service of others. Some people have a seeming innate ability to comprehend computer programming and translate their vision for a stepwise progression through a complex process into functional code. Some people are especially talented as musicians and can, with due diligence applied to the necessary skills, invent melodies and play songs that will delight others.

On the other hand, there are others for whom such cerebral tasks are unthinkable. There are people made in the image of God whose vocational gifts tend toward manual labor and craftsmanship. It is unhealthy to devalue those gifts in comparison to others.

This, of course, does not mean that certain occupations should be maintained simply to have them. We don’t need an endangered jobs list to preserve vocational-diversity.

But the answer to a changing job market is not to encourage people to sit on the sidelines and simply subsist on handouts. It is to enable opportunities for vocational retraining and encourage individuals coming into the workforce to diversify their skill set. Engaging in meaningful work is part of participating in humanity and enriching the world around us.

The Relational Cost of U.B.I.

Even proponents of U.B.I. recognize it would require reconfiguring the economic status quo. Wages for the productive workers—mainly in technological positions—would need to subsidize the U.B.I. payments for able individuals who, at least in theory, lacked the skills to do certain types of work.

One obvious problem with this is that the existence of U.B.I. might encourage people who could find work to simply accept the income and stay at home. Observation of human nature seems to point in that direction, which may end up making the system fundamentally unsustainable.

Although questions abound about the economics of U.B.I., concerns for the cost should not be the primary concern for Christians. The deeper problem with U.B.I. is that it encourages people not to find ways to add value to their communities. Work adds economic value, but it also adds a deep relational value that will be difficult to replace.

The conversation about U.B.I. will certainly continue in the future, but it must be broadened to consider the nature of humans and the value of work. There are needs for community and contribution that a check from the government cannot fill.

Editor’s note: Read more about a biblical theology of work in How Then Should We Work?

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On “Flashback Friday,” we publish some of IFWE’s former posts that are worth revisiting. This post was first published on Sept. 20, 2016.

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