I am opposed to the idea of a Universal Basic Income on economic grounds – I don’t think that the sorts of money needed to lift those unable to work out of poverty and into a decent income standard can be given to everyone without massively distorting the economy in harmful ways; and I don’t think that a UBI that doesn’t end poverty is worth pursuing as the foundation of a poor person’s income.
But I am also opposed to a UBI on moral grounds. This stems from three things. First, from the observation that again and again in research amongst the precariat, the long-term unemployed and the chronically sick, it has been shown that people possess a strong commitment to work which is not eroded by experience of bad jobs, unemployed or sickness. Second, from the desire for fairness that is summed up, ironically enough for left-wing UBI proponents, by the socialist phrase, “from each according to their ability, to each according to their needs”. And thirdly, from my understanding of mankind as based on the teachings of Christianity: that mankind, uniquely among the animals, was made to work.
On point one, there is a wealth of research including from the DWP. Two of my favourite books are Poverty and Insecurity (2012) by Shildrick et al, and Disconnected Youth? (2005) by MacDonald and Marsh. I also summarise some of the key evidence for Britain’s strong work ethic in my book, Second Class Citizens.
On point two, it is a fact that life requires effort. If a couple has a baby, they are expected to supply that baby’s needs and can be held criminally responsible if they do not. The acts of caring for a baby are acts of effort or work. It requires effort to feed one’s self, get washed and dress, keep a house: would any healthy person seriously argue that they should be tube fed so that they do not have to go to the effort of feeding themselves? This is a deliberate ad absurdum argument. My point is that at its most basic, life requires acts of work on our part to sustain it. I see no reason not to extend that argument to work that contributes to society. If you prefer to go off and live by yourself in a fully self-sufficient manner – growing your own food, producing your own cloth for clothes, building your own shelter – then please feel free to do so. But as soon as you want anything from me – food I have grown, or clothes I have made, or a house I have built – then it is only fair that you give me something in return. I have put hours of work into that food or clothing or house, and if I am to give up the fruit of that labour without going hungry, naked or homeless myself then I need something from you that would take me a commensurate amount of time to achieve. This remains just as true if what you want from me is my medical knowledge, or my farming knowledge, or the electricity from the mini power station that I run. Work is not primarily about money. It is about the sharing of labour so that goods and services are produced efficiently though specialisation, yet everyone can still access all the goods and services that they need. It is you using some of your time to produce a narrow set of goods or services, which you then swap, via money, for the goods and services that you didn’t have the time or skills or machinery to produce but nevertheless need.
On the third point, as a Christian I believe God created the universe and all within it, and that he made mankind to both have a body, as animals do, but to also be in contra-distinction with animals in that mankind alone of all the animals bears the image of God and has been given the duty to work the earth. This is in the very first chapter of the Bible:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground. So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:26-28, NIV)
I therefore hold to the position that work is dignifying and inherent to the dignity of mankind. It is a God-given duty and, in a non-fallen world, would also be a joy. Indeed, the rewards promised to Christians include having more work to do (see e.g. Matthew 25:14-30; Luke 19:12-17)! The fact that work is often burdensome, hard and even exploitative does not mean that work is inherently bad but that our fallen earth includes work that is bad. We should work to get rid of those forms of work.
The church recognises the need to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. The early Christians regularly provided for one another, pooling their resources and running programmes to provide food for elderly widows. They cared not only for their own, but for non-Christians too, leading eventually to the conversion of pagan Rome to Christianity. And the Bible teaches that those who are able to work should do so, so that they can share the work of their hands with those in need.
I find myself therefore thoroughly dissatisfied with UBI. It does not provide the dignity of work which the Bible says man was made for. It seeks to divorce work from income, as though we can be satisfied with money we have not earned nor would need if only we had access to work; and it does not provide access to work for those who want to contribute to and participate in society as God made us to do. This leaves aside the position of those who from illness or disability cannot work; but research shows that even these people – and I am one of them – would prefer to be able to work, even as they accept social security in recognition that they cannot.
In the post-War years, the UK government was committed to full employment. It continued with this until a shift to neo-liberal thinking made controlling inflation the priority over maintaining employment. Unemployment soared from one million under Labour to three million under Thatcher, and we never got back to full employment.
We need a different sort of full employment now: one that sees fewer hours per person as both men and women participate in the labour force; and therefore a higher hourly pay for those at the bottom. But there are a great many jobs that need to be done that go undone: meeting the social and wider physical needs of the elderly and disabled, not just the most basic physical needs; care for our natural environment in farms, nature reserves and public parks; investment in research and development of green technology. That’s just three areas, and there are many more.
We don’t have a shortage of work. Nor do we have a shortage of workers. What we have is a market-driven economic system that cannot allocate workers to work in a socially desirable manner. But a UBI will not solve that problem.