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Thanks to my friend and colleague Kent Van Til for his thoughtful response to my blog post on universal basic income.  In his response, he demonstrates very well what we at Hope College have formulated as our Virtues for Public Discourse.  In responding to his comments, I would note that we have much agreement on theological principles, but some real differences of interpretation on the implications of the principles and of our assessment of our current situation.

Let me begin by noting what we agree on, for we agree on a lot.  First of all, we agree that [as Van Til puts it] “Work was part of God’s good creation and a significant element of God’s intention for humankind.”  He also notes that “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.”  Secondly, we agree that although “work is later made challenging as the result of sin . . . , it does not obviate the need for humans to work or their nature as workers.”

Thirdly, although Van Til doesn’t note it here directly, I know that we both agree that work can be redeemed through the all-encompassing work of Jesus Christ through his death on the cross.  I believe that these points of agreement are important building blocks for any Christian reflection on policies that impact the labor market and incentives to work, and of any understanding of work and vocation.  We also share a concern for the poor, and Kent has written eloquently about this subject in his book Less Than Two Dollars a Day: A Christian View of World Poverty and the Free Market.

We do see many things differently however, so let me move on to some of the statements where he and I disagree.  Van Til asserts that I generally tie “labor, wage, and calling together” and that I see “paid labor as the principal way of fulfilling one’s calling.”  I don’t believe that this assertion accurately reflects my views as described in my earlier post. I believe that work is one very important way that we can serve others, but as I wrote “not everyone is called to be a worker for pay–rest and non-work activities are important too.”  My overall point was not that our calling always overlaps with our paid work, but that the provision of universal basic income can provide a disincentive to work in paid positions, because we are no longer in need of as much income.  It is also important to note that our paid work, despite many shortcomings, often provides valuable service to others.

Van Til also reflects on my statement that universal basic income could lead to more dependence on government, with a result of significant disappointment.  He responds that “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?”

I believe from the context of his remarks that he questions whether a dependence on government would cause more disappointment than dependence on corporations.  There is no doubt that labor market outcomes can be disappointing in a number of ways.  I can honestly say that every corporation or company that I have worked for has disappointed me in significant ways!  I did have the freedom, however, to move on to other locations and try to find possibilities for meaningful work.  Of course, many people don’t have this chance, and we need more opportunities for good work in our society rather than less.

There are other reasons why Christians should be wary of dependence on corporations, as large corporations have an increasingly greater influence on many aspects of our lives.  However, there is a substantial difference between our ability to disengage from corporations versus our ability to disengage from government.  Government has the power of the sword and the power of taxation, and we cannot opt out.  Although it is getting harder to escape from the control of big corporations, it is at least theoretically possible.  Dependence on government is a markedly different situation than dependence on corporations.

As I read Van Til’s response, it seems as if the heart of the matter for him is his concern that “the market has become the sole determinant of the monetary rewards meted out for labor in society.”  He states that these results are unfair in many ways, but that “questions of fairness are not allowed.”  In addition, he asserts that “Current labor markets leave many without work to provide sustenance for themselves.  This seems contrary to the will of God for his creatures. The UBI might remedy this.”  There is a lot there to think about here, and labor market outcomes are far from perfect.  Valuations in the market often indicate the preferences of the population, and many times reflect sinful desires and the lack of appreciation for matters that God cares about.

Van Til then asks “why must the market define the amount of the wage rather than government or other institutions?”  I have substantially less faith in the ability of the government to make good decisions about the labor market than Van Til does.  There is not enough time or space to reflect on the history of government control of the economy, but I don’t believe a look at the historical record will show good results.  People make lifelong decisions about which fields to go into and how much to invest in education and human capital based on market incentives.  People also make choices not to participate in the labor market, and to engage in other activities.  In many ways this drives our economic system, although as noted above it is hardly perfect.  However, having the government define wages in different professions, and perhaps changing this wage at different times, would lead to significant chaos in terms of people’s decision making.

While Van Til has fundamental questions about the nature of our economic system, it is important to note that universal basic income actually presupposes and depends on the current system.  It requires many people to work, to pay taxes, and to thereby support those who may choose to work less.  Universal basic income may free some from the vicissitudes of the labor market, but it only happens if others continue in it.

As we debate a program of universal basic income, we need to remember that the money to pay for this program will have to come from somewhere.  We need to count the costs, both monetary and otherwise.  Someone will have to pay, and we often hope and believe that it won’t be us.  Do we want to leave our children with the bill to enhance our current level of consumption?

Concerns about universal basic income are not primarily about the support of those who are unable to work.  There is a fairly strong consensus among Christians that people must be supported when they are not able to take care of themselves.  However, proponents of universal basic income need to make the case for why some people will need to work in the labor market to support those who decided not to work.

As a Christian economist, I appreciate the opportunity to interact with theologians as I examine our responsibilities in God’s creation.  Van Til notes that humans were created to work, that work can be good, and that humans need to work.  I agree and I also believe that we need more work rather than less.  In many situations, if not most, I believe that a policy of universal basic income will take us in the opposite direction.

Interest in universal basic income programs is increasing, and I am confident that we will see these programs begin in many countries over the next decade or two, including the United States.  I also believe that the COVID pandemic has hastened this process.  If universal basic income programs reduce the incentive to work, in the long term we will all be poorer, and in a variety of ways.  I would prefer instead to see programs that ensure a high-quality education for anybody who wants one, along with training and retraining programs for people at any time in their life.  Increasing individual human capital and productivity is a foundation for responsible and more equitable economic growth.  This policy promotes more independence, while a universal basic income is likely to promote more dependence.

In our current age we often struggle with how to best promote the flourishing of all of God’s people–it is not easy.  Christians must speak to the importance of work in the Kingdom, and examine carefully any program that reduces the likelihood that people participate in employment that serves God and our neighbors, while providing stable income for our families.

As we generate policy responses for today, we also look forward to a new heavens and a new earth where we live together with God and his people, where his people “will build houses and dwell in them; they will plant vineyards and eat their fruit . . . . For as the days of a tree, so will be the days of my people; my chosen ones will long enjoy the work of their hands (Isaiah 65–NIV).”

Todd Steen

Hope College
Todd Steen is the Granger Professor of Economics at Hope College, and he serves as the Managing Editor of Christian Scholar’s Review.