At Work

Does a Universal Basic Income Conflict with the Biblical View 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 report from the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development. That number represents 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 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 on 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.

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  • Nice job! In addition, the theologians at the University of Salamanca, Spain in the 16th century determined that the state’s role is protecting the life, liberty and property of the citizens. Any taxes collected to do anything more than that is theft. The Bible always requires that giving to the poor be voluntary. If not, it’s theft.

  • Greg Conan

    “U.B.I. might encourage people who could find work to simply accept the income and stay at home … which may end up making the system fundamentally unsustainable.”

    Automation is on track to displace a third of American jobs by 2025 [1] and half of American jobs by 2033 [2]. It will probably move even faster in the rest of the world [3]. U.B.I. isn’t an unsustainable system – /mandatory paid labor/ is an unsustainable system.

    “[W]hat if doing work is part of what it means to be human?”
    Why does it have to be paid? Why can’t people pursue the work that they feel they were made for instead of being forced to do an arbitrary kind of work to survive?

    “God cursed the ground making their daily work toilsome”
    So he tainted the goodness of work with the evils of difficulty and necessity? They could not work freely anymore, which was bad? Then U.B.I. will free people to pursue the work they choose.

    1. Business Insider, “Experts predict robots will take over 30% of our jobs by 2025 — and white-collar jobs aren’t immune”
    2. Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne, “The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?”
    3. Futurism, “Universal Basic Income: The Answer to Automation?”

    • Like I tell my students, the key to creating jobs is investment. But investment requires less consumption and more savings. UBI is more consumption, which means less investment and fewer jobs.

      Automation has always and everywhere reduced jobs. There is no doubt about it. But that is the short run view. In the long run automation makes goods cheaper and that makes consumers wealthier. Increased wealth then goes into savings and investment or consuming more of other goods, both of which increase employment. That’s how automation has lifted the West from the levels of poverty seen in Bangladesh to the high standards of living we enjoy today.

      However, socialism short circuits that process. Unemployment insurance, social security, medicare, medicaid, massive regulations, high taxes, all tools of socialism, prevent businesses from creating new jobs by channeling the savings into more consumption.

      • Greg Conan

        “Automation has always and everywhere reduced jobs.” What part of “[a]utomation is on track to displace a third of American jobs by 2025 and half of American jobs by 2033” implies that our situation is business as usual? For instance, at the turn of the century GDP rose while employment stagnated – for the first time in United States history [1]. Machines allowed for increased productivity despite that employment went nowhere.

        This situation is unprecedented. It is very naive to expect job growth to make up for the upcoming automation.

        “UBI is more consumption, which means less investment and fewer jobs.” We are going to have fewer jobs anyway. Assuming that anyone can get a job will become increasingly unrealistic over the next few decades.

        “[A]utomation makes goods cheaper and that makes consumers wealthier.” Not if those consumers’ jobs were replaced by machines.

        “[S]ocialism prevent[s] businesses from creating new jobs by channeling the savings into more consumption.” The businesses won’t create jobs. Why would they? Automated labor gets cheaper over time and human labor get more expensive. Automated labor gets more effective over time and human labor doesn’t. At some point, machines are more efficient to use than workers, so workers are replaced. No jobs required. Humans need not apply.

        Plus, I don’t really care about creating jobs. Paid labor was a necessary evil that UBI makes unnecessary.

        “…Increased wealth then goes into savings and investment or consuming more of other goods, both of which [USED TO] increase employment.” You forgot to use past tense. The transition to automated labor has already begun. During the Recession, the employment-to-population ratio dropped as workers lost their jobs [2]. It hasn’t bounced back – their jobs were filled by machines.

        1. The New York Times, “Jobs, Productivity and the Great Decoupling”
        2. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Employment-Population Ratio”

        • I didn’t say it was business as usual. But you’re placing the blame in the wrong place. Automation is the sole reason why standards of living in the West are 60 times higher than they were 300 years ago. Even Marx recognized it in his day. Automation fails to do the same thing today because of socialism.

          You have been duped by the socialists and technophobes who know nothing about economics. The trend of the 19th and 20th centuries was for machines (later robots, which are just machines) to make more stuff while people worked increasingly in services, education, healthcare and entertainment. If the trend could continue, no human would make anything except crafts and we would all work at education, healthcare and entertainment. But if we could reach that point we would only have to work maybe 15 minutes a week to live very well.

          That will never happen because socialism destroys wealth faster than we can create it. Don’t blame automation. Blame massive increases in socialism. The US is following exactly in the footsteps of every other socialist country in the past 150 years. Study Germany in the last 19th century when the US had a freer economy and Germany embraced socialism. By WWI Germany’s economy was a disaster with very high unemployment. The USSR didn’t have high unemployment because it created jobs for people to do nothing, very similar to UBI. But the nation grew poorer every year until it collapsed. The same story applies to every socialist country in history.

          Automation will make us wealthier without socialism, but it can’t overcome the devastating effects of socialism.

  • Pyrrho

    The notion that “everybody has their place and must be happy with it because it’s God’s will” is patronizing and false. There exist jobs that are degrading to humans and serve as destroyers of motivation and joy. While I agree that work has value and adds value to human life, it can also serve the opposite of that goal if it is menial and repetitive.

    Some people wouldn’t be truck drivers or factory workers if they had more opportunities or education, which they cannot access or afford. Many are forced into doing work that degrades them and their dignity because it is the only economically viable option to them, the only option to put food on the table. The argument for UBI is to remove the constraint of having to put food on the table to allow people to pursue their real desires and talents. Yes, it would lead to a large amount of free riding, but then again, all public goods are susceptible to that.

    • That’s Marxism. Christianity has always taught that all work is noble and ennobling unless it’s immoral, such as prostitution.

      • Pyrrho

        Roger, I always appreciate your inputs, so thank you for them. I tend to write contrarian comments not necessarily because I believe them, but since I am a huge fan of playing devil’s advocate. I love to see the clash and debate of ideas in public forum and by providing an alternative opinion, I hope to stimulate discussion.

        I don’t personally believe that UBI is a good idea, I think it’s a terrible idea that would destroy the economy of whatever state undertook it. That said, I wanted to engage with the ideals underlying it. Playing devil’s advocate helps me to think through my beliefs and better understand those of the people I disagree with.

  • Andrew, 100% agree with the “elitist” views of work and I laugh at the “predictions” that by 2025 how much work will be automated. HA 😀 You know how many BUGS will need to be debugged? Just take a look at ALL of the magazines such as Popular Science and Mechanics from the middle of the 1900s and beyond and see how many FUTURE ideas they predicted went no where. So let’s say about 1 out of 4 predictions (about technologies, etc. about the future) come true, so let’s quit predicting and get back to work creating wealth.

  • Susan Vincent

    The idea behind UBI is to enable people to do better and more creative work, not to eliminate work. That said, intent & practice are entirely different things. Would people really spend their time engaged in more humane and creative work, or is The pursuit of economic gain/survival a necessary motivator for productivity?

    • Spence Spencer

      Based on my observation of human nature, I’m tempting to see the latter of the options as the closer to reality. I imagine we’d get an overall increase of mediocre garage band music with UBI, too. That is a good, but I’m not sure it would overcome the potential pitfalls.

  • Russ McCullough, PhD

    As long as the UBI is not greater than a poverty level of income, I think the axiom of choice ‘more is preferred to less’ will prevail. Since the current disincentive of ‘I will lose my benefits’ will disappear under UBI, there should be plenty of incentive to enter labor market. Furthermore, our ability to identify the people in need and the reasons for it will change dramatically when you can say to someone in need, “where did your UBI go this month?” See Charles Murray’s article for more,

    • Spence Spencer

      I’m sympathetic to the argument and also the idea that there would be much less govt. overhead with UBI. There are positives to UBI, especially in theory. This is only one consideration for UBI, though an important one. Another major concern is that UBI tends to put a great deal of influence in the hands of the highest level of government with a single, simple fulcrum. It would be easy for national politicians to leverage a promise for an increase in UBI for great gain in the electorate and make the attempt to fulfill the promise, too. So concern for subsidiarity comes in to play.

      • Russ McCullough, PhD

        Yes, there is a political risk there. In theory, the legal determination of ‘poverty level’ could be structured in such a way that it would not be tainted by political interests but in reality there would be risk of that somehow being tainted or overturned.

    • Yeah there are probably efficiency gains for UBI compared to the current programs, but from a Christian perspective we need to consider the morality of the state taking from one group, mainly the rich, and giving it to others even if they are the poor. That’s not the role of government. As Leviticus says, judges (representing the government) should be impartial to both. And the Biblical pattern for giving to the poor is that it is always voluntary.

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