When one first encounters universal basic income, it is a radical idea. When you read a bit more about it, however, you come to realize that our current system may be the radical one. There are a number of sacred beliefs that support our current system. In order to embrace an idea such as universal basic income and other ideas that could help us imagine a life beyond work such as shorter workweeks and work-days, one must question these sacred beliefs:
#1 Work is virtuous
Bertrand Russell felt that the belief that work was virtuous was one of the biggest barriers to progress:
I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.
Today in the United States, there are two political parties that might disagree on almost everything. The one major exception is that both share a belief in the virtue of work. While Democrats typically support a large safety net, their approach is still completely tied to the idea that all should work to earn a living. Work requirements, “jobs guarantees” and more jobs in certain industries are constant talking points. Where did this come from?
There are different explanations, but it seems to have emerged between the 16th and 18th centuries due to various shifts. One was the shift in the conception of time to something that should be managed, spent and budgeted or what E.P. Thompson called “time discipline.” The other major trend was religion’s embrace of work for work’s sake for a variety of moral and economic drivers. This has evolved and is commonly known now as the “Protestant Work Ethic.” In the 1800’s Thomas Carlyle summarized this view:
“All true Work is sacred; in all true Work, were it but true hand-labour, there is something of divineness. Labour, wide as the Earth, has its summit in Heaven.”
However, this definition was not simply just long hours. As Steven Malanga has detailed, the “work ethic” was hard work plus a spirit of “thrift, integrity, self-reliance, and modesty.” We have abandoned these virtues are left with a “work for work’s sake” and nothing else. Philosopher Andre Gorz makes the case that this historical work ethic no longer makes sense as it is increasingly disconnected from meeting our basic needs:
“The work ethic has become obsolete. It is no longer true that producing more means working more, or that producing more will lead to a better way of life. The connection between more and better has been broken; our needs for many products and services are already more than adequately met, and many of our as-yet-unsatisfied needs will be met not by producing more, but by producing differently, producing other things, or even producing less. This is especially true as regards our needs for air, water, space, silence, beauty, time and human contact.
#2 Leisure is passive
Our modern culture places leisure in contrast to work. Work is focused on making money. Hence if one is busy, no matter the underlying value of the activities, one is seen to be not at leisure Hence leisure becomes any passive activity or is seen as anything not in the service of making a living or earning money. Leisure becomes breaks from work (vacations), watching Netflix or even catching up on sleep.
This is a recent evolution of our understanding of leisure. Previously, leisure was seen as an active pursuit. Active in contemplation of life, active in service of a vocation or calling or active in activities that had underlying fundamental value. Aristotle famously asked the question: “With what activity one’s leisure is filled?” However, this type of active leisure has been pushed out of our lives by non-stop work.
In Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville writes:
“a wealthy man thinks that he owes it to public opinion to devote his leisure to some kind of industrial or commercial pursuit, or to public business. He would think himself in bad repute if he employed his life solely in living. It is for the purpose of escaping this obligation to work that so many rich Americans come to Europe, where they find some scattered remains of aristocratic society, among whom idleness is still held in honor.”
One would probably argue that a lot of Europe has moved more in the direction of American that de Tocqueville writes of. Bertrand Russell argued in the 1930’s that much of our energy is taken up with working and thus, we have nothing left to pursue the deeper types of contemplation and service that typified the historical sense of leisure:
The pleasures of urban populations have become mainly passive: seeing cinemas, watching football matches, listening to the radio, and so on. This results from the fact that their active energies are fully taken up with work; if they had more leisure they would again enjoy pleasures in which they took an active part.
He pushed people to consider a four-hour workday which would enable people to re-discover a sense of “light-heartedness and play.”
#3 One’s value can be determined by their earnings
If we were building a society from scratch, we may set some things up as currently constructed. For example, we would likely conclude that Doctors should make very high salaries and should go through extensive training. But many when prompted with this question often propose the same outcome for teachers.
To an outside observer, our current work system might seem insane. Types of jobs that are easily measured and optimized such as retail and manufacturing are targets for layoffs, wage caps, and automation. However, the jobs that are responsible for the squeezing of productive labor are rarely subject to the same measurements themselves and happen to come with great wages and prestige. These jobs seem to multiply constantly and talk of a “skills gap” or talent shortage is constantly discussed. I know because I used to have one of these jobs.
In his visit to the United States in the 1800’s de Tocqueville noted that “professions are more or less laborious, more or less profitable; but they are never either high or low: every honest calling is honorable.” It seems that we have, in fact, started to label certain jobs “low” and unfortunately, these jobs happen to be the ones more available to the average American that lacks a college education and happen to also come with low wages and little prestige.
We are implicitly valuing one’s worth based on their ability to earn a high salary from their work. Someone who makes a high salary is rarely questioned on their choice of profession. Yet someone who decides to become a social worker or teacher is constantly questioned on their awareness that they may struggle in life.
Who would dream up such a world?
This linking of one’s worth to one’s wages blocks us from seeing different types of value that may result from one’s efforts. It also blocks us from imagining new ways of living and working.
I’ll leave you with a story
A number of places around the world have started to experiment with giving people a basic income. Jessie Golem was a recipient of a basic income in an experiment in Canada and decided to use her time to highlight what people have been able to do when they receive a basic income. She shares the story of a mother:
Basic income allowed me a chance to recover my future. UBI gave me hope to provide a secure and better future for my baby girl. It gave me the confidence to “keep” my baby, rather than being forced to give her up for adoption. My family felt relieved to know my daughter and I would have a fighting chance, as a single mother. UBI significantly reduced my depression, anxiety, and OCD, which allowed a secure attachment to flourish between me and my baby girl. I was able to be a better, more attentive mom; I focused on my baby’s needs rather than ruminate about my own unmet needs. As a result, my baby is a well adjusted, healthy, happy girl.
People often pose the question, If we just gave people money through a basic income, wouldn’t people stop working?
The answer is yes, they might. But they also might work on things that matter to them and the world. The types of jobs and activities that are not well compensated in our labor economy and instead have enormous payoffs in a deeper sense of creativity, compassion, and love.