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How a universal income could discourage meaningful work

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In his popular book, Coming Apart, Charles Murray examined the key drivers of America’s growing cultural divide, concluding that America is experiencing an “inequality of human dignity.” Such a divide, Murray argues, is due to a gradual cultural drift from our nation’s “founding virtues,” one of which is “industriousness.”

“Working hard, seeking to get ahead, and striving to excel at one’s craft are not only quintessential features of traditional American culture but also some of its best features,” Murray writes in his chapter on the subject. “Industriousness is a resource for living a fulfilling human life instead of a life that is merely entertaining.”

Murray fully acknowledges the deep significance that work can bring beyond economic provision. Yet despite that recognition, Murray and a range of other conservative and libertarian thinkers continue to advocate a solution that would surely accelerate its demise: a universal basic income (UBI).

A UBI is variation of welfare through which regular transfers of cash are guaranteed to citizens by the government, regardless of status or situation. For Murray, who proposes an annual $10,000 transfer to anyone after turning 21, such a plan would only succeed if it was leveraged as a substitute for the welfare state. Indeed, simplifying the bureaucracy and minimizing the state is at the core of his reasoning.

“Under my UBI plan, the entire bureaucratic apparatus of government social workers would disappear,” Murray explains, “but Americans would still possess their historic sympathy and social concern. And the wealth in private hands would be greater than ever before.”

As far as UBI plans go, Murray’s solution is surely preferable to those of Mark Zuckerberg and Richard Branson, each of whom appear to view a UBI as simply another perk in the existing welfare state. But for Murray and the chorus of other conservative and libertarian voices who continue to join him, the question remains: given our belief that meaningful work and the “virtue of industriousness” are closely tied to America’s moral and social fabric, won’t such a policy simply exacerbate our underlying cultural problems?

If work offers something distinct in value — socially, economically, spiritually — what do we lose if we promote material transfers from the government that are independent from the actual creation of value? How are we to restore or cultivate those “founding virtues” if we promote policies that cast them even farther to the side?

Murray has responded to these concerns by shrugging off idleness as inevitable. “Yes, some people will idle away their lives under my UBI plan,” he says. “But that is already a problem… The question isn’t whether a UBI will discourage work, but whether it will make the existing problem significantly worse.”

His other major claim is that, while he agrees in the value of all that, the threat of automation is simply too great for human workers to withstand. “People have been worried about technology destroying jobs since the Luddites, and they have always been wrong,” he explains. “But the case for ‘this time is different’ has a lot going for it.”

In all of this, we see a fear of automation that undermines that original faith in human ingenuity and industriousness. Likewise, we see a focus on economic or policy efficiency that overlooks the side effects to the human heart. Both of which highlight an uncomfortable reality for many on the right: It is not enough to simply be “small government” if our preferred pathways look only to the material factors on the surface. We also need to heed the cultural, social, and spiritual connections that lie beneath.

If we fail to recognize the value of work to the destiny of the human person, for example, our tinkering on the surface might only make matters worse. Yes, we may achieve certain surface-level gains in simplifying the government’s methods for moving cash, but at what cost to a culture that values and flourishes from meaningful work?

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 seek efficiency wherever we can, even in our safety nets and policy mechanisms. But in doing so, we needn’t lose sight of those “founding virtues,” just as we needn’t lose faith that a widespread restoration of those virtues is possible.

As we look to the challenges of the future, let’s pursue efficiency and effectiveness in our government. But let’s do so with a continued faith in human capacity and creativity, and all that it brings brings to the world we’re trying to build.

Image: Attack of the Piggy Banks, Low Jianwei(CC BY 2.0)

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Joseph Sunde is an associate editor and writer for the Acton Institute. His work has appeared in venues such as The Federalist, First Things, The Christian Post, The Stream, Intellectual Takeout, Foundation for Economic Education, Patheos, LifeSiteNews, The City, 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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