My friend Todd Steen has written a good and thoughtful article about providing a Universal Basic Income (UBI) for all in the United States.  In it, he makes direct references to the way Christian faith might direct our thinking on this subject.  As a theologian with an interest in economics, I would like to respond.

His four main points are as follows:

  1. Work is part of God’s good creation and a significant element of God’s intention for humankind.
  2. If a universal basic income leads individuals to depend more upon government for their livelihood, then there is a substantial likelihood of long-term disappointment.
  3. Whether or not UBI programs would actually reduce poverty in the long run is unclear.
  4. With guaranteed income provided by the government, will a worker be as likely to pursue their God-given callings, which for many individuals exist in the labor market?
  5. If a UBI program takes individuals away from their callings to work and support others, we will all become more impoverished, and not only financially.

Point three is well outside of my capacity to answer, but I would like to combine the other points and look at them from another perspective.

Todd generally ties labor, wage, and calling together.  He does recognize that there is a great deal of non-paid work that goes on, but he sees paid labor as the principal way of fulfilling one’s calling.

His first point is correct, in fact, perhaps even more important than stated.  Humans are created to be workers.  The world’s first job description is found in Genesis 2:15, “And God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”  The Hebrew terms– abad and shamer are rich, as their many translations suggest.  Humans are to “till and keep,’ cultivate and guard,” “dress and watch over,” the physical world.  Humans are called to be the re-creators who act in the place of the great Creator.  To be human is to be a creative worker.

Here is the first point that I would shade differently than Todd.  Although he rightly observes that sloth may cause some to quit working under a UBI, he must recognize that a UBI would not be the cause of sloth, but rather, it would make it easier to be slothful.  To be human is to be a creative worker.  This human condition will not change under a UBI.  Surely, as a consequence of sin, the UBI would enable some to give in to the vice of slothfulness, but the UBI will not change the created nature of humanity.  As humans we are wired to work.

I grant that work is later made challenging as the result of sin.  “By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food” (Gen. 3:19a).  But whereas the curse makes labor painstaking, it does not obviate the need for humans to work or their nature as workers.

Point two.  Most of us are now dependent on various kinds of corporations for our livelihood.  Layoffs, unemployment and forced retirements are common causes of disappointment.  Why would dependency on another institution such as the government cause more disappointment?

Points four and five.  These points tightly tie wages to calling.  Why must this be the case, and why must the market define the amount of the wage rather than government or other institutions?  In the ancient or pre-modern world, heredity or royalty largely determined one’s wealth.  Only in modern times did merchants gain enough independence to change their own level of income.  Since then, the market has become the sole determinant of the monetary rewards meted out for labor in society.  And it has done so in ways that often raise eyebrows about its fairness. For instance, a gambling mogul becomes one of the richest men on earth.  An NFL lineman makes 100 times more than a devoted school-teacher, etc.  The monetary value of labor is set by the market, and questions of fairness are not allowed, since the value of labor is simply a matter of supply and demand.

Must the market be the sole arbiter of the value of labor?  Must supply and demand of certain kinds of labor be the exclusive metric for wages?  Could we not say that being born into the human family entitles each person to a basic living wage, regardless of the type of labor they perform?  Why must the special demands of the labor market alone set the criteria?

When God endowed humanity with the fruit of creation, God did not set up a corporation that would engage laborers.  “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it.  They will be yours for food” (Gen. 1:30a).  God set up creation so that all could find sustenance within it.  Current labor markets leave many without work to provide sustenance for themselves.  This seems contrary to the will of God for God’s creatures.  The UBI might remedy this problem.

Todd  and other economists are far better equipped to determine whether a UBI will in fact provide basic sustenance for all than I am.  And if they conclude that it will not, or would do so at a ridiculous cost, I will accept their conclusions.

As a theologian, I conclude with these two theses, hoping they will be incorporated into future economic discussions about the UBI.  First, the human person must work, wages or no.  Our very nature demands it.  Second, God desires all humans to derive basic sustenance from creation, corporate labor market or no.

Again, thank you Todd, for shining your faith brightly into your economic musings.

Kent Van Til

Kent Van Til is a Religion Professor at Hope College.  His Ph.D. is from Marquette Universityis in "Theology and Society" with Economics as an allied discipline.

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