As we enter a new age of automation and artificial intelligence, fears about job loss and human obsolescence are troubling the cultural imagination. Prosperity abounds, but innovators like Elon Musk and Bill Gates continue to predict a future where humans steadily diminish in their contributions, becoming ever more dependent on external sources of provision.
As a result, many have hitched their hopes to a universal basic income – a form of widespread welfare in which regular cash transfers are guaranteed by the government, regardless of a citizen’s status or situation.
It’s a proposal that’s been advocated by a diverse mix of leaders, from progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi, to tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey, to free-market thinkers like Milton Friedman and Charles Murray. More recently, it was a central plank of Andrew Yang’s failed presidential bid, and it continues to be a defining feature of his campaign for mayor of New York City. Set amid the dystopian disruptions of COVID-19, the appetite for a UBI has only increased, teased by the now steady drip of stimulus checks.
In most of the proposals, the numbers simply don’t add up, creating an insurmountable national debt. But even in the more sober-minded attempts from libertarians like Friedman and Murray – which prioritize administrative and budgetary efficiency through a drastic dismantling of the welfare state – the fundamental thinking is still woefully inadequate, exhibiting little care or concern for the long-term social and spiritual side effects of mechanical redistribution.
The idea has longstanding roots, stretching back to early advocates like Thomas More and Thomas Paine. But in our current context, it represents a very particular form of surrender. Indeed, while humanity remains anxious about the prospect of our future robotic replacements, we also seem to be strangely at peace with just keeping our bellies full until the transition is finally complete.
In an interview on Dr. Oz, psychologist Jordan Peterson challenges these attitudes, arguing that “mere economic rectification” is insufficient to address the challenges that lie ahead. At its core, a UBI promotes a materialistic view of human work and human needs. In turn, it’s bound to set us on the wrong path when it comes to human destiny.
“The guaranteed basic income idea is predicated on the idea that man lives by bread alone,” Peterson explains. “Well, that isn’t how it works, and I’ve certainly seen that in my clinical practice.”
Peterson proceeds to explain how money can often enable and compound existing problems. “I’ve had clients, especially addicts, [where] if you gave them money, they would die,” he says, recalling a particular example from his clinical practice. “As long as [my client] was flat broke, he wasn’t dead.”
It’s an extreme example, but it points to an important insight: “People need purpose more than money.” Each individual’s situation is highly unique and complex. In the case of Peterson’s client, family, poverty, and psychology all play intersecting roles. But this only furthers the case that our solutions ought not to be overly simplistic.
The more our economic policy ignores the capacity and complexity of the human person, the more we risk a systemic abdication of human creativity and contribution:
It isn’t the provision of material well-being with ease that allows people to live properly, even though a certain amount of material wealth is a necessary precondition. It’s purpose. That is a much more difficult problem to solve.
We need something to grapple with. We need meaning to justify our lives. And some of that is to be found in the struggle against privation and malevolence. The mere offering of material sustenance to people isn’t going to solve the problem …
[Fyodor] Dostoevsky knew this 150 years ago. He said if you gave people everything they wanted, so all they had to do was eat cakes and busy themselves with the continuation of the species, the first thing they’d do is smash it all to Hell so that something interesting could happen. That’s our fatal flaw and salvation … that wanting to contend rather than sit back and have everything taken care of.
The referenced bit comes from Dostoevsky’s novel Notes from the Underground, in which the Russian author reflects on the mystery of human agency.
“Men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar,” Dostoevsky wrote. “And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point.”
When it comes to the UBI, we’d do well to recognize this reality. We are not “keys of a piano,” cogs in some grand economic machine. Predictably, the corresponding efforts to run humanity “by the calendar” have thus far come up short.
In Ontario, Canada, a pilot program of a UBI was abruptly canceled after leaders concluded it was “a disincentive to get people back on track” and was not helping people become “independent contributors to the economy.” Likewise, in a UBI experiment in the Netherlands, progressive economist Ive Marx concluded that the it would increase poverty by 3%, emphasizing that it was “massively inefficient if one cares about the least well-off in society.”
Peterson is right that we all long for meaning and purpose, and much of that meaning is found in work itself, by God’s very design. In working on behalf of our neighbors, our hearts and hands are ordered in a way that both affirms our inherent dignity and cultivates civilization. If we neglect or forget about these connections, our tinkering will be tragically confined at the surface level.
As Peter Cove argues in his own critique of conservative support for the UBI, “Our future depends on a robust future for work, because work does so much more than provide for our basic needs. Work draws us into the public square and instills in us a sense of personal responsibility. It allows people to feel the pride and self-respect that come with supporting their spouses and children.”
We should pursue generosity and seek efficiency wherever we can, and that includes our efforts to provide some sort of public safety net for the needy. But in designing systems for the future, we should stay focused on what actually helps humans thrive over the long term.
Peterson refers to our humanity’s inner drive for freedom and purpose as our “fatal flaw and salvation.” At the Acton Institute, we might put it differently: “The human person, created in the image of God, is individually unique, rational, the subject of moral agency, and a co-creator. Accordingly, he possesses intrinsic value and dignity, implying certain rights and duties both for himself and other persons.”
We see the future not through a lens of chaos – seeking to secure and protect ourselves from the inevitability of robot overlords. Cash transfers will not protect us from such a fate.
Instead, through the lens of God’s creative design, we see humans as protagonists in a bigger, more mysterious economic story. Far from embracing human obsolescence, we can look for opportunities to better empower human wisdom and creative service – to love our neighbors through new ideas, new relationships, and the economic abundance that’s bound to follow.
The future is bright, and human contribution is a key part of the story.