Opposing Universal Basic Income

Opposing Universal Basic Income September 3, 2017

Resolved:  Catholics should oppose plans for a universal basic income as being contrary to Catholic Social Teaching.

This resolution can be read in a lot of ways, so let me clarify:  I am not opposing disability insurance, welfare payments or unemployment benefits to support those who cannot find work or are unable to work.   Rather, I am thinking of the recent proposals which have arisen, partly out of Silicon Valley types, that the increase in automation and the expansion of AI based computing, is going to result in fewer people being employed or even employable, and so the correct response is to rework the economy to provide a basic stipend for those made redundant by the new economy.

Such an approach, I think, is just putting a band-aid on a more fundamental problem:  post-industrial capitalism is no longer oriented for the good of persons, but rather towards the maximization of profit.  Proposals for basic income are just an “enlightened” attempt to preserve the maximization of profits by preventing destitution and the violence which often accompanies it.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores the fundamental nature of work, not simply as a means of acquiring the means to survive, but as a constitutive part of human identity. Men and women need work to fulfill their vocations as human beings.  To replace work with “income” is to complete the reduction of a person from a member of society to a consumer.

I think Pope Francis said it very well in Laudato Si:

If we reflect on the proper relationship between human beings and the world around us, we see the need for a correct understanding of work; if we talk about the relationship between human beings and things, the question arises as to the meaning and purpose of all human activity. This has to do not only with manual or agricultural labour but with any activity involving a modification of existing reality, from producing a social report to the design of a technological development. Underlying every form of work is a concept of the relationship which we can and must have with what is other than ourselves. Together with the awe-filled contemplation of creation which we find in Saint Francis of Assisi, the Christian spiritual tradition has also developed a rich and balanced understanding of the meaning of work, as, for example, in the life of Blessed Charles de Foucauld and his followers (Laudato Si, 124)

We were created with a vocation to work. The goal should not be that technological progress increasingly replace human work, for this would be detrimental to humanity. Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. Yet the orientation of the economy has favoured a kind of technological progress in which the costs of production are reduced by laying off workers and replacing them with machines. This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on the economy “through the progressive erosion of social capital: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence”.[104] In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”.[105] To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society. (Laudato Si, 128).

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