Universal Basic Income and the Liberal Arts

Recent social fractures, combined with our society’s enormous wealth, has caused a fringe discussion in the public policy world to get more attention. The idea is that the society (the government) should supply everyone (every citizen?) with some kind of basic material support. This goes beyond what we usually think of as “welfare,” for it applies equally to everyone, without conditions on working, having disabilities, etc.  Slate Star Codex has a useful post supplying the arguments in favor of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) instead of a basic jobs guarantee.

I find the arguments for a UBI over a BJG pretty convincing. The basic idea still seems to have a number of unknowns, and it isn’t obvious that a UBI would work as a policy. (See point iii on the SSC post for some worries about the economics.)

I’m interested here in one particular complaint: “iv) Without work, people will gradually lose meaning from their lives and become miserable.”

It seems to me that this objection makes a basic error that is nonetheless very common: it equates “work” with “what I’m paid for.”

At one level the assertion may be true. A life with literally nothing to do isn’t a lot of fun. It’s boring. (“Meaning of life” questions are fraught, so let’s focus on whether we would want such a life.) Even here there are caveats all around. It might not be easy to determine whether a life’s activity is “pointless” or whether someone ought to find it boring. Let’s just work with the intuition that mere aimlessness is not good.

The complaint against a UBI is that without work, life would have this kind of pointlessness. And there does seem to be some evidence for this. Consider the last few decades in the Rust Belt and Coal Belt. Many of the social issues there seem to track the loss of stable, decent-paying jobs. Or consider the people who “retire” several times from different jobs, only to find themselves stir-crazy with nothing to do.

SSC rightly observes that a lot of jobs are pretty boring themselves, so it isn’t clear that offering basic jobs is going to solve the problem. A UBI is better because it gives people freedom to do what interests them.

But that’s the other problem, because a lot of people don’t really know what interests them. And this is a failure of education.

The Liberal Arts(TM) were not the subjects that would make one free, but rather those that befitted free men–those domains of knowledge that were appropriate for citizens, freed from the demands of labor, whether slave or wage. One studied the liberal arts to know things that would make life interesting when there was no need to work.

This is the problem with linking “work” with “job”, and then saying that lack of “work” causes a lack of meaning. Some kinds of work are not easy to compensate, but are still valuable and interesting. There are many people I know who, as far as I can tell, would love to be freed from their day-to-day labors so that they could do what they really like. Some of them even work less than might be considered prudent so that they can do their side-gig. Their real work is not paid, but no less valuable for it.

Our society is probably rich enough that it could probably support at some basic level everyone who doesn’t want to work in a job. Those who do want a job can produce enough marginal value to support those who want to do other things. (Lest you think these other things are themselves pointless, remember that caring for family, volunteering for charity, etc. are all things that might fall into this category. Imagine being able to decide whether to be a stay-at-home parent without having to seriously worry about making ends meet.)

This economic freedom is impressive, probably unprecedented in the history of the world. It really does seem as if, at least in the West, we are quickly approaching a time when large portions of the society don’t need a job. If having nothing to do is so bad for one’s soul, then how should we prepare for this coming freedom?

The liberal arts have two answers. First, we can prepare to do more of these liberal arts. We shouldn’t think of the liberal arts as the so-called “humanities.” It’s not that everyone should write more poetry (though perhaps some should). It might be that some should do more science or math, or more arts and crafts, or more politics, or more cooking, or more gardening. (Chad Wellmon has been critiquing this distinction recently.)

Second, studying the liberal arts gives us something to be interested in. SSC’s examples on this point seem slightly off. Folks who already feel their interests squeezed out by their responsibilities would be fine. Most people benefiting from a UBI wouldn’t know what to do with their time. The UBI would give them time to pursue their interests, but for the most part their interests aren’t worth pursuing. And often they know it, at least a little. They’d be bored because their current time-wasting distractions aren’t interesting enough to sustain an entire life of leisure. But the liberal arts are interesting enough.

The problem is that our recent educational trends have favored purely technical education–job preparation–when it seems likely that there will be no job to prepare for. One might say that this technical preparation has enabled our society’s wealth, and perhaps that is partly true. But the cost in the long run might be very high.

The liberal arts have tried to justify their existence in purely utilitarian terms–writing gets you a better job; reading comprehension helps you understand your work; etc. I wonder if the better way defend them is that the liberal arts give you something to do when when you don’t need to do anything. This was David Foster Wallace’s point in his famous commencement address at Kenyon College.

Ironically, then, the biggest problem with a UBI might be that the a society with the material means for it will not have the moral means. But that is what the liberal arts are supposed to fix, and the best part of the UBI would be to supply the modest material means to participate in the life formerly restricted to a tiny fraction of society. SSC thinks that a UBI would be close to utopia. I’m less sure, because I’m not confident that most of us are ready to live there yet.