The “work ethic” or the money-making ethic? (Mandatory Participation on Trial, Part 5)

The “work ethic” means different things in different contexts. Probably the most relevant definition of it is the belief that everyone who can work for what they get, but no such principle can be used to defend the existing economic system.

Dana Fradon, New Yorker Cartoons

The science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein included an excellent response to this sort of argument in his book, For Us, The Living. Heinlein imagines a man from his era, 1938, time-traveling to a future America that has a UBI.

Man of 1938: “Why in the world should everybody in the country be handed money whether they work or not? … How can you justify able-bodied men living in idleness?”

Man of 2086: “Did anyone live without working in your day … people who might have worked but wouldn’t and lived well … landowners, owners of capital who were not in management, idle sons and daughters of the rich? Were there none of those?”

Man of 1938: “Yes, of course, but they were entitled to be idle if they chose. Either they or their fathers had earned the money. A man is certainly entitled to provide for his children.”

Man of 2086: “All the idle of today are the rich sons of hardworking fathers.”

The last line might be restated in more contemporary terms:

All people, whether they work or not, are the rich children of hardworking ancestors.

Heinlein’s argument has two aspects. First, the children of the 99% have just as good a claim to be free from a work obligation as the children of the rich. If the children of the rich deserve it for what their parents have managed to gather under the system we have, the children of the 99% deserve it for what all of our ancestors gave up to create and maintain this system. You can describe past and current versions of capitalism in a lot of ways, but “fair” is not one of them. All of our ancestors contributed to the creation of a system that has less and less need for labor and that makes more lifestyles possible, but the rewards in that system have little, if any, relationship to fairness, merit, freedom, or incentivizing prosocial behavior. The rules of that system allow only the privileged few to take advantage of the many non-labor opportunities it makes possible.

Second, people who trot out the work ethic as an objection to UBI simply ignore that the market economy is not now, nor has it ever been, consistent with a principle that everyone must work for what they get. If you want to set up an economy that’s consistent with the work ethic, you have to throw capitalism in the trash.

The essence of capitalism is the return on capital. The passive, unearned income capital provides is the system’s goal and driving force. If you own a sufficient amount of capital, you and your heirs can live off that stream of income forever. Many families have lived off investment income for centuries. The “independently wealthy,” as we call them, can work if they choose, or they can live off the stream of income our rules provide for them—just as UBI would allow everyone to do.

The current system is the worst kind of mandatory-participation economy. We have mandatory participation for about 99% of people and voluntary participation for the wealthy few. People who express a work ethic view similar to that of Heinlein’s Man of 1938 probably think of people working for each other or for the weak and helpless or for good causes but look how incoherently we apply our supposed work ethic.

On one hand, it is so strong that we punish people with homelessness if they fail to fulfill it, and we don’t stop with the individual. We punish their children who are too young to be held to any requirement themselves. People who have little money are assumed to have failed to fulfill the ethic in some way, no matter how hard they have worked.

On the other hand, people who have a lot of money are assumed to have fulfilled the ethic regardless of how they got their income. You can buy yourself out of any genuine obligation to “work” with a lucky lottery ticket. Your parents or ancestors can buy you out of your obligation generations before you were born with something as simple as investing a few dollars in the right corporation. It doesn’t matter whether they worked for the corporation or even if they worked for the money they invested.

According to George Orwell, people despise beggars not because they fail to make their own living but because they fail to make a good living: “In practice, nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable.”

Full-time parents are disrespected if they’re poor and praised if they’re rich. People with “bad jobs” are disrespected, along with “welfare” recipients and homeless people who are unable to qualify for redistributional benefits at all. Most of us have only one available way to fulfill the ethic: get a little money by serving the whims of people who have a lot of money—the very people who are not held to a work ethic themselves.

All this implies our society has no “work ethic.” It has, at best, a money-making ethic, and that’s a terrible basis for social interaction. Massive reform would be necessary to apply a work ethic to everyone. If that’s what you want, I’d like to see the plan. Most genuine efforts to establish universal mandatory participation have been highly oppressive.

UBI does not solve all the injustices associated with existing inequality, but it solves this one: the uneven application of the mandatory participation requirement. Instead of trying to find some fair way to hold everyone to an equal obligation to participate in economic production, it equally relieves everyone from that obligation. If we aren’t going to force everyone to work on equal terms, we have no legitimate authority to force anyone to work.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Most of the posts in this series were written with the intention of going into my forthcoming book, Universal Basic Income: Essential Knowledge for MIT Press, and many, if not most, of the ideas presented here, did make it into the book, but the publisher suggests I soften the wording and some of the arguments, because as is, in this version of it, “the anti-UBI crowd seems like a bunch of mustache-twirling robber barons,” and she rightly thought that the antagonistic stance would be less convincing than more confrontational one here. So, for the book, I made those changes, but I liked what was left out as well. I thought there must be a place for it. And I decided that place was on my blog. I refer everyone to the book because it has a different approach; because it benefits from peer review, copyediting, and more extensive proofreading; and because it has important ideas that aren’t here. Also, many of the arguments here are developed more fully in other books and articles of mine, most of which you can find on my website:

Karl Widerquist,

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