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Work Ethics? The Moral Case For Universal Basic Income

One of the barriers to adopting Universal Basic Income (UBI) is the feeling in neoliberal societies that nobody should get something for nothing. Even if the money is available, and there would be tangible improvements to society, the rule is that individuals must work in order to get recompense. And if you’re too sick, too stupid, too tired, too old, etc, it’s tough. Your worth is determined by how much capital you can generate, and if you can’t earn enough to survive  -  you don’t survive. It’s cruel and unnecessary, and it’s the belief system we’ve signed up to.

In addition to the idea that our value can only be measured in monetary terms, there’s also a perceived need for us to work for as long as we can each day, and to work every day. In this case our value is derived from the fact that we are working long hours, that we are not being “lazy,” that we are constantly producing. We know objectively that it’s unnecessary, and that we could comfortably work much shorter hours for the same outcome, but it’s a part of our culture. Anthropologist David Graeber describes this phenomenon as the proliferation of “bullshit jobs”:

"But rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the ‘service’ sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.

These are what I propose to call ‘bullshit jobs’."

We don’t need these jobs; technology allows us to automate, outsource and scale up most processes so that machines can perform the work more efficiently than humans. This should mean that we are able to work fewer hours and have more free time to spend as we wish. However, there’s a feeling that we just aren’t ready for this and that the lack of meaningful employment will cause society to collapse and everyone will just sit around eating crisps in front of the telly all day. But if they did  - so what? The amount of money generated by more efficient processes is still available whether we create made-up jobs to fill the time or not.

The idea that full employment is a social good has its roots in religion. The “Protestant Work Ethic” is taken to have originated from Calvinism, but many other denominations have also emphasised the moral benefit of work. Some, like the Quakers, believed that employment was key to developing good character, but at least they ensured that their workers were well-provided for (through “ethical capitalism”).

Conservatives in general derived their ideas about the moral value of work from these religious origins, being the political group most likely to promote traditional values. This continued into the 21st century, following Keynesian principles in the 1950s and 60s  - aiming for “full employment” aided by monetary and fiscal policies to dampen the natural cycles of the economy.

During the 1970s and 80s, there were periods of high unemployment, which coincided with a number of recessions and large job losses from the manufacturing sector. This left thousands of workers with obsolete skillsets unable to find suitable work, and seemingly scuppering the goal of full employment  -  although it still counts as “full employment” if the dwindling number of available jobs are filled and there’s a surplus of workers. This is one of the characteristics of a managed economy such as ours: when there aren’t enough jobs to go around, the government needs to absorb those spare workers somehow  -  which is how we either end up with the creation of “bullshit jobs,” or an expansion of the numbers of benefit claimants. As it happens, the Thatcher government manipulated the unemployment figure by encouraging people to apply for disability benefits, thereby removing themselves from the economically active population so that they are not counted in unemployment figures.

Moving into the 1990s, there was another recession in 1992/3, with a corresponding peak in unemployment. But some of the unemployed were not counted in the figures due to their inclusion on workfare schemes  - another careful massaging of the figures, and as many of its attendees would say, a bullshit job created to get people officially off the dole.

During the Blair years, jobs were plentiful, unemployment fell, and the economy grew. Benefits were not particularly easy to access, but the system was fair and nobody was left wanting. The 2008 recession was something of a shock to the system, putting an end to the long-term growth we had seen for more than a decade before. We’re still dealing with the effects of it now  - it was a long recession, and our recovery was slow and weak. Wages have fallen in real terms, output is down, and there has been an explosion in the “gig economy” -  meaning that many people are working reduced hours, or more than one job. Unemployment’s gone down, but underemployment’s gone up. While the official unemployment figure is low at 4.2%, that includes part-time workers and zero-hours contractors. That’s not really full employment  - but it looks good on paper.

The harshness and complexity of our benefits system makes it difficult for people to claim all that they are entitled to. There are people missing from the system; too weak, too tired, too naïve to work the system and exercise their rights. Our obsession with avoiding welfare dependency actually perpetuates it by turning the dole into a full-time job. Whether this is an acceptable outcome for our 24/7 culture is debatable  - I mean, these people are “working,” but maybe not in the manner our society approves of.

Back to the Blair years. Around the turn of the century the Conservative opposition made a big fuss of the amount of money that was invested (or wasted, depending on one’s political leanings) in the public sector. The accusation was that local councils and the NHS were bloated with unnecessary bureaucracy and civil servants in “bullshit jobs.” While government spending is now at the other extreme, i.e. there isn’t enough of it, there may have been some truth in the notion that local governments were previously inefficient. However, those doing the “bullshit jobs” would at least have been paid a living wage  -  but did we need to over-invest to disguise this allocation of funds? Well, modern British society would probably have been in uproar had people just been handed a paycheck  -  even though it’s affordable and makes good economic sense to do just that.

Living in a period of austerity policies, those out of work have found themselves in a double-bind. There’s less work available, yet the benefits system has been squeezed at a time when it is needed most. The meager offerings of the state are not a living wage, but no matter how hard the Conservative government tries to starve people into employment, it’s just not working. The austerity policies targeted welfare payments and local government spending, but have been exposed as wasting more money than they’ve saved  - all to prop up the fantasy that supporting people when they’re out of work causes laziness and moral downfall. We’ve just traded one form of bullshit for another, and removed the benefits. On top of that, the literal fabric of society is crumbling, with potholes unfilled and the health service in chaos. No amount of blind dedication is going to fix that.

If public services had been invested in properly, we could have employed people in real jobs, with none of this bullshit. But still the Tories cling to the notion that we’ll work ourselves out of underinvestment and neglect. The fiction of work as a virtue in itself just will not die.

So what will actually happen next? There’s not enough jobs or investment, people are poorer, and we’re all working as hard as we can. It’s obvious that the Conservative work ethic has had its day. But will we ever let it go? Like the fallacy of meritocracy, it’s a powerful idea  -  I understand its appeal. UBI would sort out so many of the manufactured ills of British society, but many people are happy with the status quo. How bad do things have to get before we revert to the socialist ideals of the post-war years? We shouldn’t have to rebuild society from scratch because the theory failed in practice, but it looks like we won’t act until we face a catastrophe.

The notion of the “work ethic” comes from the 19th century, and it was a suitable idea for its time. But even then, the concept of Basic Income was discussed. Industrialists needed a willing workforce available immediately and for long hours, but economists and visionaries predicted a future where wealth generation was not limited by the size of the human workforce. Two centuries later, those predictions are our reality, and our thinking needs to keep pace. UBI would manage the practical aspects of such a shift, but we need to reconsider what we see as the purpose of human endeavour if we are to reap the rewards of technological progress. Our values are stuck in the 1800s, while the real world accelerates through the 21st century. The only things holding UBI back in the long term are moral objections and beliefs that people cannot live fulfilling lives without toil. UBI could provide an opportunity to re-evaluate the purpose of our existence, and perhaps free us from the constraints of conformity.

The moral case for UBI is about more than providing a minimum financial standard. It gives the individual freedom to establish their own identity and reason for being.

Without the fear of destitution, we could all have the chance to pursue the lives we want. Isn’t that the greater moral virtue?

To read more by this author, visit Katy Preen's blog or support her work on Patreon

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