Universal Basic Income, Capitalism and Christianity - Can We Reconcile the Three

I was born and raised in the West, steeped in Capitalism, market economies and the power of supply and demand. As I began to consider the concept of Technological Unemployment, I wrote about Capitalism having an “end-game”.

https://medium.com/@ForHumanity_Org/capitalism-aritifical-intelligence-robotics-socialism-universal-basic-income-740cc3f1c41e

I believe that remains true. I believe that if left to its own devices, with technological advancement, Capital (as in Capital v Labor) would choose to eliminate the labor from its cost equation, resulting in 100% of profit left for Capital. You might argue that 100% capital and 0% labor is too extreme, and I agree. There will always be roles/work for humans to do, based upon the skills that humanity retains which machines cannnot replicate, even if that is limited to their “humanness”. In this piece, I am using the extreme example to highlight a risk, not predict an exact future. Capital is incentivized to eliminate labor from its cost structure. AI and Automation are capital investments that can replace labor therefore, I expect Capital to increase investment in AI and Automation which will likley result in significant unemployment, at least as it relates to jobs that pay a salary.

To complete the ideological triumvirate, I was raised and subsequently chose to be a Christian, which defines the core of my morality. I am not asking you to agree with my morality, just understand that my moral choices, come from this background, as I try to reconile these concepts. With that as foundation, I decided to host a backyard BBQ, where the pre-announced topic was Universal Basic Income, Christianity and Capitalism, reconciling the three ideologies. I invited good friends and was not attempting to make this a “comprehensive and stastically significant focus-group”, instead I wanted to just talk and debate and see if we could learn a few things and achieve some level of consensus. It was a lovely dinner, the talk and questions were challenging and while we wandered a little bit into the weeds, as all good conversations tend to, we actually did find some key points upon which we generally agreed, even if the details remained a little debateable or ambiguosly defined.

So I present for your consideration the results of this discussion. It should be noted, that the crux of the discussion was about UBI and thus what follows is a discussion about UBI, influenced by our similar capitalistic (western) backgrounds and by our shared Christian-faith. I believe this can be a useful guide for others as to how we considered some of the challenges presented by these three ideologies and where we landed. I do not expect that all will exactly share these beliefs, but rather take this as one version of the discussion for you to consider.

A few bullet points:

  1. Belief that we have a moral responsibility, as a community to care for the poor and those who cannot take care of themselves. This is absolute and a core principle based on our Christian faith.
  2. Belief that “risk and reward are linked, greater risk should equate to greater potential reward and vice versa” is a bibilical concept. It need not apply only to money and capital, but in the Parable of the Talents, failure to “invest” Talents is considered sinful. This was discussed in the context of all behavior. Taking risk, deserves reward, but may also lead to failures, which is okay. Our understanding of the parable is that we should take risks with the assets that we have - we should invest. The group voiced a concern that UBI may lead to risk-averse behavior of all kinds, notably a lack of investment. Many UBI proponents talk out of both sides of their mouth on this subject which is why we spent time on it. On one hand, they criticize those who have taken great risk, sometimes with time, effort, work/life balance sacrifice, capital or even reputation, instead frequently attributing it to inheritence or unfair exploitation. Then they suggest that a UBI will lead all people to be more entreprenuerial because their downside risk is floored with the UBI, in other words, they will take risks. Either risk and reward are linked at all levels or they are not. You can’t reward “UBI entreprenuers” with profits and begrudge the wealthy who may have already earned their profits. Not to mention those middle to upper class members who just plain worked ridiculously hard. Something that used to be called the “American Way”. The group felt that a UBI, on a mass scale, would reduce the appetite for risk amongst the mass population, even if a few were emboldened. They did not accept the premise that UBI would lead to greater entrepreneurialism.
  3. Belief that work and participation in your own survival is a human responsibility both to yourself and to your community. The group did not believe in a “right to survive”. They support the “right to participate in your own survival”. The group believes that the community is responsible for caring for those who are “unable to participate in their own survival”. This might be a semantic argument, but the point for us was clear. Survival is not guaranteed, it must be worked for and that is the nature of life. In fact, the idea that anyone had a guaranteed right to survive was generally considered illogical.
  4. The group did not require Universal to mean that 100% of people must receive the benefit fully. They were supportive of the idea that high income earners could have their basic income effectively fully taxed, which of course reduces the cost of implementation. The group felt that it should be “means-tested” on both ends. The wealthy should be taxed on their UBI to lower the cost of the program. But on the receiveing end, all should work, who are able. This is a moral decision based in the belief that providing for ourselves, our family and our communities is our responsibility. They further felt it was appropriate to determine “who is able” as a community. Implicit in this point is the “ability to work”. If work disappears, then that reduces one’s ability to work. The group flat out rejects the notion of a “right NOT to work”. That of course is not the same as “you must have a job and be receiving pay”. The group roundly supports the value of “unpaid jobs” such as stay-at-home caretakers or volunteers.
  5. In the context of substantial technological unemployment, the group understood and accepted the idea that Universal Basic Income might be the only option. No other alternative was offered as yet.
  6. There was genuine concern about UBI and unintended consequences, such as laziness, forced re-location and subsequent low-income housing concentration and negative feedback loops. Some of the group were familiar with UBI studies and their “smallness” and “terminal value”. They recognizing that behavior associated with these tests is not likely to compare to behavior in a world that MUST rely on UBI, such as the conditions that might come to pass under technological unemployment. Therefore, they reject the notion that we “know” how people would react under a comprehensive and necessary UBI program, reverting to concerns that it would not encourage work of all kinds.
  7. Following onto that point, one who is able, must work, whether they like the work or not. Where work is defined as “putting in effort” to participate in one’s survival or to execute the will of the community if the community is providing the support. This is different than a “job”, which is associated with pay or a salary. Stay-at-home parenting is work, and provides great benefit to the community without pay. They also reject the notion that a worker should enjoy their work. In fact, the group laughed at the idea that someone shouldn’t have to do work they don’t enjoy. They all wondered who the lucky ones were who always enjoyed their work.
  8. The group points to Capitalism’s excellent success in wealth creation, accepts the principle that “investment” from the wealthy creates growth and new opportunities. They also felt that the profit/return motive has made the allocation of capital generally efficient and thus generally productive. Further the group accepts that the benefit from new opportunities may be to a diminshing number of participants and that a consequence has been an increase in income inequality. One of the supporting arguments for higher taxes and potentially a UBI was the concern about rising income inequality. They did not reject the notion however that Capitalism may have an end-game — technological unemployment.
  9. There was considerable concern about the misuse of cash designed to provide food, clothing and shelter. One member who has had significant dealings with the poverty-stricken noted that frequently those in need, needed far more than monetary support, as mental-illness and drugs were often associated with their situation. It was suggested that a UBI payment might be used directly for food, clothing and shelter, instead of as cash to avoid misuse. To which there was varied debate, which I tabled (another version of “off into the weeds”). There were doubts about the government’s ability to provide the “right” solutions for those needs and externalities associated with that process. There was no conclusion on the best approach, cash or vouchers for services.

To wrap up our take on Universal Basic Income and trying to tie it together with Capitalism and Christianity, I would say the group was happy to consider the concept, unwilling to toss out capitalism, unwilling to accept some of the primary arguments of UBI advocates and generally unmotivated to run out and support a Universal Basic Income. They were happy to understand it better. Happy to consider the pros and cons more than they ever had and I know that awareness of the issues has been raised. Notably, I think everyone in the group is now comfortable having an opinion on the subject and how it fits into their views on life, poverty, public policy and technological unemployment. Maybe you, the reader, are a little more comfortable too. Whether you agree or disagree with the thoughts presented here, I suspect that the group’s thoughts are fairly mainstream. If you are vehemently opposed to UBI or zealously advocating for UBI, this ought to help you understand how one group thinks. Maybe it will make for a more fruitful dialogue as these challenges are considered in the future.