Universal basic income wouldn’t make people lazy–it would change the nature of work

We need to reevaluate our beliefs about work.
We need to reevaluate our beliefs about work.
Image: Reuters/Christian Hartmann
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Americans believe in the importance of a good day’s work. And so it’s understandable that the prospect of a universal basic income (UBI), in which the government would issue checks to cover the basic costs of living, rubs some people the wrong way. Writing in The Week in 2014, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry envisions a UBI dystopia in which “millions of people” are “listing away in socially destructive idleness,” with “the consequences of this lost productivity reverberating throughout the society in lower growth and, probably, lower employment.”

This is a reasonable concern. After all, the most successful anti-poverty programs in the US thus far, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit, have been carefully designed to promote work–not enable people to avoid it. But based on the evidence we have so far, there’s little reason to believe that a UBI would lead people to abandon work in droves. And even if some people did indeed opt to give up their day jobs, society might wind up reaping untold rewards from their free time in the long run.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the US and Canada were seriously considering the possibility of instating a UBI. During that time, the US government commissioned a series of experiments across six states to study the effects of guaranteed income, particularly its effects on work. The Canadian government introduced a similar experiment in the town of Dauphin.

But it turns out that the effects of a UBI on labor participation weren’t nearly as bad as some had feared. Researchers found that households as a whole reduced their workloads by about 13%, as economist Evelyn Forget explains in a 2011 paper published by Canadian Public Policy. But within each household, the (generally male) primary breadwinners cut back on work hours only slightly. Women who were secondary earners reduced their work hours more, devoting more time to household care and staying home with young children. Teenagers also put off getting part-time jobs to focus on school, leading to a noticeable decline in high school dropout rates in Dauphin, and to double-digit increases in high school completion among participating families in New Jersey, Seattle, and Denver.

Despite the worries of writers like The Week’s Gobry, it shouldn’t come a surprise that UBI failed to wreak havoc on workforce participation. After all, as many conservatives aptly note, work is about more than just a paycheck. Jobs tends to be pretty central to our sense of identity and human dignity. Free money just isn’t enough to prompt most people to give up their careers.

But even if some people did stop working, they might wind up contributing to society in other meaningful ways. People who perform the unpaid labor of taking care of children or elderly family members, for example, are certainly doing important work. UBI would simply provide a means of compensating this type of labor efficiently.

And historically, many of mankind’s most groundbreaking achievements have come from people with the luxury of plentiful leisure time. As economist Forget notes in an interview with Freakonomics: “If you look at the 18th and at the 19th century, some of the great scientific breakthroughs and some of the great cultural breakthroughs were made by people who did not work.”

For instance, Charles Darwin acknowledged that he was able to set sail on the HMS Beagle because, coming from a wealthy family, he had “ample leisure from not having to earn my own bread.” Rene Descartes was able to revolutionize Western philosophy and mathematics because, as he put it, he “had no feeling, thank God, that my circumstances obliged me to make science my profession so as to ease my financial condition.”

Countless other luminaries, from Adam Smith to Galileo, were similarly born into privileged lives that permitted them to indulge their scholarly pursuits without the distraction of making ends meet. “These were gentlemen of leisure,” Forget says in the interview. “I don’t think these individuals felt useless; I don’t think their contribution was negligible.” Even for those freed from the need to work for pay, we have a deep human instinct to contribute to society. Many of those who give up work are likely to replace it with something equally meaningful.

Of course, not every UBI recipient will invent life-changing technology or form a new theory of evolution. But economic security does liberate people from the daily grind, emboldening them to start businesses, take risks, and explore new innovations. Think of a basic income as seed money to facilitate the entrepreneurial spirit which helps the American economy thrive. If we had a UBI that allowed more people pursue their passions and curiosities, it could yield huge dividends for society. And even more importantly, this freedom would no longer be limited to those who are born into wealth.

A UBI remains a long way off in the United States—if it’s even feasible at all. And it’s also true that human behavior may have changed since the 1970s, meaning that people might react differently to receiving free money today. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about ways to make it politically and culturally beneficial. Current experiments in Oakland and beyond—where researchers and governments are testing small basic income trials—will doubtless help us see how free money plays out in the new economy.

But based on what we know so far, it seems that when people cut back on work, they tend to do so for good reasons: to stay home with a child, to devote more time to their studies, and even to tinker with ideas in the hopes of making something extraordinary. There’s no doubt that work is a fundamental part of a healthy society. But we should also make room in our worldview to acknowledge that there are other, equally important ways in which humans–and society as a whole–can flourish.