Philosophy

A Philosophical Defense of Universal Basic Income

Ambrose Andreano

I like Bernie (I supported him in 2016), but he is simply wrong about UBI, and shows here that he is very dated in his understanding of the relationship between work and money. Nobody "desires" to work merely to manage needs. This is necessity-based work that is actually the opposite of fulfilling (if the individual's desires do not align with the necessity), because the work itself is being moved by obligation, not desire.

There is a kind of work that is motivated by desire (the things that bring personal value), and a kind that is motivated by necessity (personal and environmental problems). We need to understand this distinction and move forward accordingly.

The UBI proposed by Andrew Yang would not create this kind of environment but suppose everyone had an income that took care of every personal need. What would be the philosophical implications of that? I truly believe nobody desires to work in response to economic needs. True desire would be present regardless of economic necessity. The one who desires to be a teacher, for instance, would desire this regardless of whether they were rich or poor. Money is not, nor can it be, the incentive for desire-based work. The desire to work for money is usually either rooted in greed or circumstantial compromise due to there not being a desire-based alternative that would meet the needs.

I have my needs taken care of (for the most part), and this does not stop me from working. I have been working tirelessly on this very website, because I enjoy doing it. I enjoy aesthetics, and this kind of work is enjoyable. If all individual necessities were taken care of by UBI, public work would shift towards environmental necessities and desire-based work which cannot be automated (such as the arts, theology, philosophy, etc.), and the ratio of the kinds of work would slowly shift. For some people, they would work less than 40 hours a week, and that’s fine. A 40-hour work week is not something that needs to be kept for any real reason. For others, they would work more than 40 hours a week, because desire-based work actually causes people to work more hours than they would otherwise. When one desires to do something, it is the desire that causes the work to not feel like “work.” Does any parent need to do any convincing to get their kid to play Fortnite an extra hour? Of course not, because they enjoy playing the game. Work is only an obligation when the work itself is not enjoyable for the individual, and the incentive structure of our society should be one that actively tries to get each person to do the work that brings them a sense of purpose. Because as it is now, the majority of the population are doing jobs they couldn't care less about.

“This policy is unacceptable and we cannot move forward because it does not help literally every single person in the country and liberate them from their circumstances.”

This is the kind of thing you hear from both Republicans and Progressives speaking out against Yang’s UBI, for different, but equally absurd reasons. “That one lazy guy will take advantage of it and continue being lazy!” is the fear of the Right, and “That one guy on welfare might not benefit from it!” is the fear of the Left. Both responses are rooted in the idea that UBI is bad because it would not be beneficial for everyone. However, a policy proposal is not acceptable only if it actually benefits 100% of the population. This is true of no policy, and it is not a logical reason to react against a policy. The fact is UBI would be beneficial for over 90% of United States citizens, and that is more than enough reason to implement it.

Ben Shapiro also operated under some similar problematic misconceptions in his interview with Andrew Yang:

1) The presupposition that money is the reason we work, and this is somehow a strike against UBI.

This criticism of UBI being bad because "it no longer incentivizes work" is very strange to me. It seems to me that we are moved by desire, not for money, but for an idea. That is, potential we wish to actualize. Only a wicked heart desires a job solely because of its high salary. Most would be perfectly content working at what they love at a modest salary so long as their bills are paid. Money is not the driving force of value, and to think this says something about what our culture has done to our thinking.

One is not "incentivized" to work because of money, one is "pressured" to work specifically to obtain money when one is living in financially difficult circumstances that require it. If money was not an issue, work would be based on 'desire' and not 'capital.' One might respond by saying that this financial pressure is necessary to provoke a work ethic, but this is false for three reasons. 1. There are other pressures besides financial that provoke action (self-worth, parents, creative drive, religious principles, etc), 2. Those who currently do not work have financial pressure. 3. Rich people with excess wealth (and no financial pressure) still work, many of whom intentionally work more hours than the average person. All of this suggests money is not the reason we as human beings choose to work.

2) The presupposition that people spending money on lotto tickets invalidates UBI.

Shapiro tried to make the case that Yang ought to be concerned about UBI because many poor people spend multiple hundreds of dollars on lotto tickets. What does that have to do with UBI? "You are just incentivizing them to continue to buy lotto tickets! Therefore UBI is bad!"

First of all, nobody is going to create an economic policy that prevents people from making poor decisions. It is bizarre that Shapiro would even imply that UBI or any policy 'could' fix that. Does any policy prevent people from making poor decisions? UBI is not for the financially struggling people who will inevitably blow their money on things that do not matter, it is for the financially struggling people who will not, and the latter group is substantially larger than the former. What Ben Shapiro is 'actually' arguing is that he himself does not deserve $1000 per month, despite his conservative frugality, because of Lotto Man's decision making. UBI's value is not contingent upon 'every individual' benefiting from it, it is contingent upon 'the average person' benefiting from it.

UBI is a good and realistic solution to free people to do the work that they enjoy doing, instead of continuing to feel stuck in a boring and unfulfilling job simply because a) you do not have the resources to change your own circumstances, and b) because those lack of resources force you to be limited to only necessity-based work rather than desire-based work. Yang has already made many great arguments that the nation needs to consider. I'm a stay-at-home dad now. Do I work? Should this country acknowledge what I do as work? And if this is the case, should I be compensated? This is a conversation that needs to be explored and taken seriously, and I'm thankful for Andrew Yang bringing it into the mainstream.

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