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The dystopian prospects of a world without work

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Humans have long daydreamed about a day or a place where work is no more, whether found in a retirement home on a golf course or in a utopian society filled only with leisure and idleness.

But is a world without work all that desirable, even amid material abundance?

In an essay in Touchstone Magazine, Hunter Baker explores the question at length, noting the growing disconnect between “consumer man” and “working man” in the modern economy.

Indeed, as Baker notes, the closer reality of such fantasies is found in a growing dependency among the able and unemployed. Whether we observe the recent exodus of men from the workforce or the mysterious rise of disability recipients, it’s increasingly easy to imagine a prosperous world wherein economic dependency is not confined to the poor and destitute. Unfortunately, a utopia this is not.

If we are truly to become a “nation of takers,” to borrow Nicholas Eberstadt’s formulation, we should be keen to remember that whatever one makes of the morality of massive economic redistribution and entitlements, it is the “takers,” not the “makers,” who are likely to reap the most injustice and regret.

“The reality is that a life without work is not a good life,” Baker explains, reminding us of a range of science fiction parables, from Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain to Disney/Pixar’s WALL-E, each with their own warnings of dystopia. “These stories show that the good life does not consist in escaping work,” he continues. “It consists in finding meaningful work to do. Work is one of the primary avenues through which we make contributions to the lives of others while simultaneously enriching our own.”

Baker proceeds to emphasize not only the importance of work, but the moral and spiritual foundation that ought to support it, noting that a revival of work and creative service will be hard to realize without it. “To be blunt, sin corrupts our work and our motives,” he continues. “We need Christ to help us work rightly and for good reasons. We need our God who helps us to believe in truth and love and to express these things through our work.”

In other words, it’s not as simple as cutting welfare and entitlements. It’s not as simple as funding more skills training for the economically displaced. It’s not as simple as pursuing a universal basic income.

More fundamentally, it requires a proper view of human work and destiny. It requires a restoration and reinvigorating of our economic imaginations as Spirit-empowered followers of Christ. Here, the church plays a significant role:

Part of what the church can do is to help people develop the spiritual resources they need to contribute to a good economy, an economy where there is an honest exchange of value between the participants. In such an economy, the work that is done has quality. Services performed possess a degree of excellence. Those who pay exchange the fruit of their labor for that offered by their neighbors in the community. We should help people understand that through our work we give glory to God and show love to our neighbor.

A cold, sterile, and secular economy ends up being something like a game between utility and profit maximizers. You look out for yourself; I’ll look out for myself. I want to pay the absolute least I can. You want to work as little as possible to produce the good I am buying. Somehow, that system, which denies the need for any overarching moral values that exist outside of itself, is supposed to result in us doing good for one another.

Once we recognize this gift-giving nature of work  as service to others and thus to God  — it transforms not only the work of our hands, but the desires of our hearts and our dreams for the future. Rather than striving after the purposeless, leisure-laden dystopias, we can work for a world where all is gift, where creativity leads to service and service leads to abundance.

“When the Lord returns, let us be found working,” Baker concludes, “not to make ourselves wealthy and powerful, but to be found faithful as his chosen stewards and as brothers and sisters trying to shine forth for his kingdom and his glory.”

Read the full essay here.

Image: Fabian Vervelde, Mirthlessly Wall-E (CC BY 2.0)

Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, Intellectual Takeout, The City, The Christian Post, The Stream, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, Charisma News, The Green Room, Juicy Ecumenism, Ethika Politika, Made to Flourish, and the Center for Faith and Work. Joseph resides in Minneapolis, Minnesota with his wife and four children.

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