Is a life without work a dream or a nightmare?
Of all the factors fueling the rise of populism on the far left and right, the single biggest one is the disappearance of fulfilling, decently paying jobs for those who didn't graduate from elite universities and don't live in the country's very richest metropolitan areas. First, globalization led to the outsourcing of jobs and the collapse of the manufacturing sector, leaving behind mainly lower-paying and less rewarding service-sector jobs. And now, automation is poised to decimate the service sector as well.
The traditional center-right denies the existence of any problem at all, or else perversely blames it on lingering inefficiencies in the market, arguing that all would be well if only creative destruction were permitted to run its course with even less government interference. Meanwhile, the traditional center-left at least acknowledges the problem but sees no way of stopping the process or even slowing it down. It therefore proposes little beyond various small-bore, cosmetic policies designed to minimize the worst of the immediate pain (extended unemployment benefits; job training).
The populist left, however, is pushing a proposal that has begun to receive a surprising amount of attention: Universal Basic Income (or UBI for short). The idea (discussed most recently in a thoughtful and sympathetic essay by George Scialabba in Commonweal) is for the government to provide a regular check to every American to serve as an income floor, preventing the debt spiral, poverty, hunger, and worse that can ensue when income disappears with the loss of a job.
Proposals for various kinds of UBI programs have been kicking around for literally hundreds of years, with some of them endorsed by a surprising range of writers and thinkers. With globalization and automation eliminating whole classes of work and driving down labor force participation rates to levels unseen since the late 1970s, the idea seems newly relevant. Might a UBI save us from the worst consequences of worklessness?
The answer, unfortunately, is no — and not primarily because it's hard to imagine anything like it getting passed in the nation's capital at a time when Republicans control all the levers of power. If the idea had merit, it might make sense for the left to push the case, regardless of its immediate prospects. But the left should do no such thing — because a UBI would not address (and would actually intensify) the worst consequences of joblessness, which are not economic but rather psychological or spiritual.
When a job is lost, the economic hardship is real and requires a response. Unemployment insurance, food stamps, and the other programs that make up the safety net need to kick in. By all means, let's strengthen these programs and add some new ones to help out. But they need to be temporary, a bridge to a new job — not because there's a serious danger of the person falling into dependency on the government, as a Republican might suggest, but because a person who falls out of the workforce permanently will be prone to depression and other forms of psychological and spiritual degradation.
When we say that an employee "earns a living," it's not merely a synonym for "receives a regular lump sum of money." The element of deserving ("earns") is crucial. A farmer toils on the land and then receives his reward when he harvests his crops, some of which his family eats and the rest of which he sells at market to buy other goods to help run the household. A factory worker completes hours of appointed tasks, coming home exhausted and with an aching back, but also fulfilled by the fatigue, which brings financial benefits in the form of a paycheck. From the backbreaking labor of waitresses and mind-numbing tedium of long-haul truck drivers to the boredom of nightwatchmen and the irritations and endless upper-respiratory infections of daycare workers, a job can be and often is a significant (even the primary) source of a person's sense of self-worth.
A job gives a person purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, to engage with the world and interact with fellow citizens in a common endeavor, however modest. And at the end of the week or the month, there's the satisfaction of having earned, through one's own efforts, the income that will enable oneself and one's family to continue to survive and hopefully even thrive.
Whatever their other merits, arguments in favor of a UBI too often end up sounding like paraphrases of Karl Marx's famous prediction that after the communist revolution people will hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, and philosophize after dinner. Think of the hobbies people will pursue once they've been freed of the burden of work! They'll become entrepreneurs! They'll paint! They'll quilt! They'll read! They'll volunteer!
As in most matters, Aristotle was wiser when he recognized that, although a life of leisured self-improvement is humanity's highest end, only very few are capable of thriving in such a life.
If you doubt it, just look at what so often happens to those who permanently drop out of the workforce after the loss of a job or an injury that qualifies them to receive disability benefits (which functions as a form of basic income support). Often the result is anger, purposelessness, and self-loathing.
Most people simply aren't equipped to lead lives of self-directed flourishing. In a world of widespread, permanent unemployment, we'd be far more likely to see throngs of people spending their days giving themselves over to obsessive video gaming, immersion in virtual-reality porn, and drug addiction, as they desperately grasp for a chemically induced substitution for the real-world fulfillment now placed permanently off limits to them. It would be a psychological and spiritual disaster.
Much better than pushing for a UBI would be a concerted effort in favor of a New Deal-style government jobs program that would provide employment for those out of work.
Beyond that, those who favor a UBI might want to consider going even more radical.
It's odd that so many on the left are apparently willing to concede that we have no choice but to accept the inexorable march toward ever-greater economic efficiency and ever-higher rates of productivity in the workplace, even though the result is often fewer jobs, higher profit margins for shareholders, and greater psychic misery for workers (and former workers). Maybe the left needs to stop making this concession and start proposing new ways to disincentivize businesses from embracing every form of automation that appears on the horizon. (Think of a steep tax on goods and services produced with certain forms of technology.)
That's just one idea. We will need many others.
Capitalism may be the greatest system of wealth creation the world has ever seen, but that doesn't mean we need to accept everything it does to us — or limit our response to a clean-up operation that pays the rent but leaves us plagued by desolation and addiction.