The exact dollar amount of the UBI proposals vary, but many suggest something around $10,000 a year be given to all citizens. Supporters of UBI argue that providing a baseline income would grant families and individuals the security needed to face a rapidly changing job market and to pursue what they truly love. They see UBI as a buffer against the volatile tides of our modern, global economy.
In a UBI system, economic security is provided by the government. This fact matters; the one who grants security often has the power to coerce. UBI shifts the dependence of the individual from their community and family to the government. Government becomes the primary “breadwinner,” or at least the breadwinner a person can count on if all else fails.
What would the price tag of a UBI proposal be? Estimates hover somewhere around $2-4 trillion a year. Even if the government scrapped the entire welfare system to implement a UBI, that would only cover $1 trillion. And one must remember, these trillions would not be investments geared toward termination. This check would be written every year and consumed every year, never intending to end. Indeed, the political pressure to keep and increase the UBI entitlement each election cycle would be enormous.
The dependence and entitlement created by UBI would undermine the freedom of the populace. Don Bourdroux, Senior Fellow with the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, gave voice to this concern in response to a $10,000 UBI, writing:
I fear that the chances are high that we would soon hear – not long after its implementation – cries such as ‘You are hypocritical to object to government policy X because government is the root source of your income. Because government guarantees each of us an annual income of at least $10,000, our prosperity and well-being and civil peace spring from this policy. As such none of us has any right, or strong grounds on which to stand, to engage in civil disobedience or even to oppose government regulation.’
The danger of dependence is debt. When the populace feels indebted to their rulers, their autonomy to self-govern and check the government is compromised.
Furthermore, transferring the locus of security from community to the government has manifold implications for our society, including a further breakdown in community.
When the government becomes the primary provider for a family, the social ties of communities are severed. Individuals no longer have a responsibility to one another. Not only this, but the unlikely ties forged by work that strengthen community would be lost. Allison Schrager, Ph.D., reminds her readers that “work is an important place where we interact and connect with others around a shared sense of purpose” while also “encounter[ing] people with different politics and views of the world.” Work is in important defense against the storms of social isolation and alienation that is endemic in our society.
The connections between families and neighborhoods are knit by need for one another. There is a healthy dependence that creates community. UBI fundamentally distrusts these pillars of society, and for fear of their failure, steps in to grant what the community ought to provide.
Advocates of UBI maintain that “dead-end jobs,” referring to the typical, non-glamorous jobs that most people begin with, are both at risk due to automation and a barrier to an individual's ability to flourish. To them, a UBI would replace the need for these jobs. Everyone would have the liberty to choose a job they enjoy or pursue education and skills in the field they are interested in. This, they say, furnishes more flourishing.
Now, it would be remiss to fail to acknowledge the merit in this argument. Certainly, there is rich dignity when an individual pursues what they love. Additionally, individuals pursuing fields where they have a comparative advantage is a blessing to the rest of society. That being said, the UBI mantra of menial labor removes the dignity of work that inheres within even low-level jobs. These jobs are not only necessary for our economy, they also provide people with the experience needed to grow into other positions later in their career.
IN DEFENSE OF WORK
The philosophy of work promulgated by UBI teaches that labor is only valuable when it is what one enjoys. This conception of work teaches that one cannot flourish within a job of mundane tasks. This approach to work explicitly labels certain jobs as unimportant. To raise a generation with this view of work is to rob them of a wealth of human capital.
“Simple work” is instrumental in teaching and providing life experiences that affect society and the individual on a deep level. Oren Cass, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, describes this, saying:
[F]or those at the bottom of the economic ladder, there is simply no substitute for stepping onto the first rung. A UBI might provide the same income as such a job, but it can offer none of the experience, skills, or socialization. A nation in which people sitting beside the ladder live more comfortably but are less likely to climb it may be one with a lower government-reported poverty rate, but it is not more effectively combating poverty.
The CEO working their dream job understands that success is the product of millions of decisions that were not the “goal.” Labor is working toward something important, and the value of the outcome imbues importance on the process. In 1961, when John F. Kennedy was taking a tour of NASA, he introduced himself to a janitor mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor’s response? Famously, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.”
As human beings, we are created to steward this earth, to steward ideas, to create order from chaos. There is dignity any time we engage in the cultural mandate given in Genesis 1:28. Dignity can be found in mopping a floor, driving a taxi, or mowing a lawn. UBI advocates would tell the janitor his job is not important or that he should not have to work that job. If this mantra were translated into marriages, families, and education, our society would prove dismal at committing to anything worthwhile. Each of these find their glory in countless hours of mundane work.
UBI AND POVERTY
Regarding poverty, the argument is rather simple: There are poor people. Write them a check. They are no longer poor. That is true in a one-dimensional, short-term way.
Material poverty is only one aspect of poverty. An individual is not flourishing simply because they have enough money to eat dinner. Oren Cass continues in his article:
What about poverty? Proponents say a UBI would end it, because each American would receive a check lifting him above the poverty line. But poverty is not only, or even primarily, a matter of material well-being… we care about social as well as material conditions, and we care about upward mobility. By these measures, a UBI makes things worse.
Aside from failing to address the whole person, UBI is a facade of even material development. The poor would be propped up by a check written to them each month, they would not be flourishing if it were not for the continued crutch of the government.
UBI is not development. It is dependence. In medicine, they call this life support, which is never confused for a healthy patient.
Practically, UBI fails to present a self-sustaining policy. Programs akin to UBI tried in the past served as great disincentives to work, plummeting the working hours of nearly every demographic and lowers GDP. Solid, long-term, economic growth makes A low GDP is problematic for a $2-4 trillion program that promises a fixed income to every citizen without an end date and without the intention that the citizen might one day no longer need the assistance. Long term, the efficacy of a UBI is deeply flawed.
To love the poor among us, Christians are called to love the whole person. This does include meeting material needs, but it never ends there. Providing poor communities with entrepreneurial opportunities, reminding them of the glory inherent within even mundane work, and situating all of this within community and the gospel provides a foundation for flourishing that is sustainable.