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A Guaranteed Income Would Undermine the Social Virtues of Work

The idea of a government provided income for all citizens is gaining currency. While today universal guaranteed income is mostly pressed by the left, Milton Friedman once argued for it as well. But the proposal is blind to the predictable costs of an unprecedented social engineering experiment that would separate citizens from one of the most important sources of human flourishing.

Freeing people from the necessity to work may sound like the last word in progressive altruism or in the efficient rationalization of social welfare, but it would undermine a pillar of our personal and social order. Work has benefits beyond earning income. It provides the satisfaction of achievement, the discipline of focusing on the desires of others, and the social bonds that our fellow workers provide.

The left today often dismisses the virtues of work. Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich is typical in saying that most jobs today do not provide “fulfillment or creativity.” But this claim just shows his impoverished imagination and empathy. One does not need to write an article to exercise creativity. Any job with any discretion allows people the opportunity to think about how to serve strangers better. And even jobs without much discretion can give a sense of fulfillment by being done well. The breadth of the human need for employment can be measured the great unhappiness unemployment causes even in most generous European welfare states.

Moreover, work promotes the self-discipline required by a society that is not disciplined by pervasive authority. Bourgeois virtues, like responsibility, accountability and self-control, that have long been acknowledged to spring from work, help build the social norms that substitute for coercion. And habits of punctuality, thrift, and fair exchange do not stop at the workplace door but spill into personal life. There is more than a touch of Rousseauean romanticism in the de-valorization of work, as if paid labor forges chains that keep us from realizing our perfect natural state rather than provides guide ropes for better behavior.

For many people, work also provides a crucial social network: colleagues on the job are sounding boards, role models, and advisers in times of need. At a time when loneliness has been called a social crisis, it is the height of folly to undertake a program that will make it easier for people to drop out into lives of social isolation.

One response might be that if work is so good, people will do it even if the incentives are reduced. Some surely will, but it is better to rely on work to provide the discipline to refine judgment rather than rely on unrefined judgment to appreciate the value of work. Young people in particular have been known to fritter away their lives until the need to earn a paycheck shocks them into responsibility. And of course the huge cost of the program will drive up taxes, getting on the employment ladder less attractive.

Samuel Johnson declared that a decent provision for the poor is hall mark of civilization but so is centrality of work. We would be much better off using any additional government subsidies for programs, like the earned income tax credit, that encourage work rather than create a new program that discourages it. Our social welfare system should reinforce the norm that a good life is a productive one.

Reader Discussion

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on July 17, 2018 at 11:55:39 am

The idea of a government provided income for all citizens is gaining currency.

No, not currency—more likely direct deposit or debit cards. 

While today universal guaranteed income is mostly pressed by the left, Milton Friedman once argued for it as well.

And Charles Murray. And Hayek advocated a universal MINIMUM income. And even Nozick acknowledged an argument for “organiz[ing] society so as to maximize the position of whatever group ends up least well-off in the society.” (Anarchy, State, and Utopia, at 231.)

But the proposal is blind to the predictable costs of an unprecedented social engineering experiment….

Uh … no, not blind; people have done studies to examine precisely the issue McGinnis raises. And not unprecedented; for decades Alaska has given citizens an annual payment.

That said, I largely agree with much of McGinnis’s description of the social benefits of work.

• Work provokes regular social interaction. One of the strongest markers of longevity is the number of social interactions a person has in a day, while social isolation is a marker for suicide.

• Work can give people a social role, as sense of being a part of something larger, a sense of being of use.

• Work can prompt people to continue to develop and grow.

• And, yes, work can provide income and an incentive to act productively.

That said, I think we need to design social policy around a decreasing demand for labor. In 1800, 90+% of the US labor force worked in agriculture. In 1970, 30% of US labor force worked in manufacturing. Today employment in these fields is a fraction of those levels, yet output is higher than ever. How? Automation.

But, people note, all those laid off agricultural workers were able to find work elsewhere, right? Well, kinda. Many did; that’s what we observe in Dickensian novels. But many didn’t. Consider horses: Today we employ only 10% of the horse that we used to—mostly for recreation and meat. The idea that every form of supply will create its own demand is simply false.

Today, roughly 3.5% of the US labor force are long-haul truckers. We’re on the verge of automated trucking. What will happen to them?

Well, people have been thinking about that. Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee’s Race Against the Machine (2011) describes how quickly the capabilities of software and robots are improving. Tyler Cowen’s Average is Over (2013) predicts a world in which all productivity is conducted by a small class of technical experts, and everyone else is relegated to a comfortable if undeniable second-class citizenship. Martin Ford Rise of the Robots (2015) describes a post-work world with robots and machine intelligence running everything, triggering the need for a techno-socialism. Ditto Thomas Piketty’s Capitalisms in the Twenty-First Century, Chris Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, and Ryan Avent’s The Wealth of Humans (2016).

But in truth, they were all late to the party. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren describing his view of how the economic future would unfold.

At the time, the world was caught in a deepening depression. “We are suffering just now from a bad attack of economic pessimism,” Keynes noted. But Keynes believed that, once the world had overcome its Depression, growth would resume and living standards would return to the upward path they’d been on previously. He acknowledged that rapid technological improvement would cause some short-term discomfort (“a temporary phase of maladjustment”), but urged readers not to lose sight of the big picture:

All this means in the long run that mankind is solving its economic problem. I would predict that the standard of life in progressive countries one hundred years hence will be between four and eight times as high as it is today….

Keynes predicted that time spent working would dwindle to perhaps fifteen hours a week, and then to nothing. And the main problem humanity would face would be just what to do with itself in a world of abundant leisure.

Thus far, Keynes has been right: Rich economies have already experienced at least a fourfold improvement in living standards. It seems likely that some, by 2030, will enjoy an eight-fold rise.

So, prospectively, we will face two challenges:
1. How will we distribute society’s wealth, when the labor market no longer preforms this function?
2. How will people fill their hours, and find meaning? It’s trite to say “Idle hands are the devil’s workshop”—but not TOO trite.

As I’ve said before, arguably the greatest innovation we need is not a method to extract CO2 from the air, but a social movement to give people a sense of meaning and belonging that is distinct from their value in the labor market. So often I encounter heartwarming stories about some down-and-out boy who finds meaning in joining some larger protest movement. Perhaps part of the current wave of populism sweeping the developed world is driven by people who feel discarded by a world that has no further use for them. I suspect we’ll get more of the same unless we can find ways to remind people of their stake in maintaining and building our society. Labor force participation is one way to do that--until it isn't.

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nobody.really
on July 17, 2018 at 13:17:40 pm

Mmm....so when people lose their jobs to automation, they should starve. Right. Nice perspective from someone who thinks *their* job is never going to be automated. Though you may be surprised--some nice AI programs are taking over much of technical writing, especially in the financial field. Or you may be outsourced to some nice person in India who charges less. Lexus has eliminated a lot of clerking jobs--what's to say that AutoLawyer 2.0 will make *you* obsolete?

Plus, telling people that they're worthless without a job and then eliminating the jobs is not likely to end well politically.

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excessivelyperky
on July 17, 2018 at 13:19:55 pm

Hey wait a minute! Maybe we can send everyone to college? oops, I forgot, we already do that and that is where that down and out young lad gets into protest movements. Ha!

"...but a social movement to give people a sense of meaning and belonging that is distinct from their value in the labor market"

AND

"Perhaps part of the current wave of populism sweeping the developed world is driven by people who feel discarded by a world that has no further use for them"

Taken together these two statements imply that what we currently observe, and / or characterize as "populism" is a direct consequence of diminishing opportunities in the labor market.

Yet, nobody really argues that a corrective for this may be a "social movement."

Would "anybody" consider that, perhaps, populism may very well be a reaction to the multitude of "social movements" that have arisen over the past several decades? that labor force participation, or the lack thereof, while undoubtedly a factor, is not sufficient in itself to explain the growing frustration of the citizenry? that the demise of "common sense" solutions to the "collisions" attendant upon human intercourse has both alienated and angered those who observe their belief systems, their mores, and yes their religious sympathies not only ignored but ridiculed, if not proscribed?; whose lives appear to be ever more subject to the whims of contemporary *expert* planning. analysis and dicta?

One could argue that the social movement advocated by my literate (and rather hard working fellow commenter) nobody has already been birthed, live into adolescence. It is called "populism."

And to this point, I do not hear a clamoring for a "guaranteed" income. I do not hear a call for *expert* analysis to determine the proper amount of monies to be provided to each of Tyler Cowens "untermensch" based upon demographics, age, race, gender, etc?

Nobody.really believes that this is both proper and susceptible to *expert* data analysis and forecasting.

Rather what I hear is a clamoring for a return to "common sense, an appreciation of the value of work (however, reduced those hours may be) and the availability of those work hours.

question:

Is it possible to automate long haul trucking? -Yep!
Is it productive to do so? - Yep AND Nope!
-----It may be cheaper, once technology is refined for the Trucking concerns to reduce labor and ancillary costs? The "data" addicted of the world will view this as an improvement in productivity and herald the results. (In much the same way that claims of increased productivity compute the increase in, as an example, a chips memory capacity or speed as an increase in productivity - yet it is still one chip manufactured in the same amount of time. It is simultaneously correct and yet false,) Yet, if we view productivity and societal comity, we must question the value of this particular form of productivity.
One can understand, an industry that is subject to intense, and often unfair foreign competition, taking steps to reduce costs, etc. But question: Is long haul trucking in the US subject to foreign competition? - Hardly!!

So, must be implement automated long haul trucking?

The answer depends upon what we perceive to be the proper role of a) government and b) corporations.
What level of responsibility ought both to have to the citizenry?
Then again, how successful can a trucking company (or any other corporate entity) be, if the ultimate end is the ELIMINATION of their customers as a result of insufficient income.

Aaahhh! But nobody (and admittedly Hayek, no doubt in a wine induced stupor) advances the proposition that Government will provide a basic income. Clearly, basic income is insufficient for Billy Bob and Barkevius to purchase an I-Phone 22 (or 200Z?). Clearly, Jessica will not be able to purchase a nice Gucci handbag, and that Ole Knucklehead, Mr. Gabe will be able to purchase neither excellent Walla Walla Valley Merlot, Syrah, Mouvedre or a new set of Titleist irons.

Oh no, wait a minute! Governmenr factotems, experts in all manner of social science metrics, to include those essential parameters necessary for human flourishing and happiness will be able to *divine* that which will best suit Gabe's vinophile affliction and his "crummy" and worsening golf swing -AND will provide all the requisite tools and products for the attainment of those satisfactions.

Then again, given Cowen's dystopic future, from where shall these experts derive their tax income to redistribute this ever dwindling national income? Heck, even the trucking companies may bankrupt themselves in an effort to save costs.

Perhaps, the Law of diminishing Returns needs to have a corollary: with Diminishing Returns arises the Law of Ever Increasing Bureaucratic Rules.
That is what is ALWAYS absent from discussions of "guranteed income."
The only thing guaranteed is the growth of the power and influence of an Expert Class whose dicta will be the ultimate resolution of any and all "collisions."

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gabe
on July 17, 2018 at 13:26:20 pm

Actually. many legal positions have already been phased out and it is going to get worse.

Fear not, however, many trades will continue to thrive. Building trades, repair, etc are not easily reducible to automation.

Goodness gracious, if Tyler Cowen is correct, we may be going "Back to the Future" where one could find an aristocracy (our current elite statists), the poor peasants and the Guild Class of tradesmen, artisans, etc.

OMG, am I going to have to clean stables as in the Days of Yore?

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on July 17, 2018 at 14:13:21 pm

OMG, am I going to have to clean stables as in the Days of Yore?

Guttenburgs Press and Brewery, are you really ... Hercules?

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nobody.really
on July 17, 2018 at 15:23:45 pm

No - but it is a Herculean effort to clean out our current stables! and made more difficult each passing day.

An item noticed in passing today:

The US Government is going to be spending upwards of $100 million dollars each hour of each day.

Now that is a lot of *crap* to clean out!

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Guttenburgs Press and Brewery
on July 19, 2018 at 22:16:31 pm

To be employed a worker creates a wealth, his talent, to be valued by an employer. The greater the talent, the more in demand the talent, the greater the wealth flowing to that worker.

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Edward Melanson
on July 20, 2018 at 05:41:39 am

Nobody says, "In 1930 John Maynard Keynes wrote Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren describing his view of how the economic future would unfold."
"Keynes predicted that time spent working would dwindle to perhaps fifteen hours a week, and then to nothing. And the main problem humanity would face would be just what to do with itself in a world of abundant leisure."

One of society's "Grandchildren" whom Maynard Keynes was concerned about was also named "Maynard" as in "G. Krebs," who decades later found the answer John Maynard's conundrum: simply embrace the dwindling time spent working and learn the skill of avoiding work: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pqzpQPDSr2s

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Pukka Luftmensch

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