On the ‘moral’ objection to a basic income: are humans ‘hard wired’ to work?

The Conservative MP Nick Boles generated some headlines before Christmas for his denunciation of a universal basic income: the increasingly fashionable proposal that all citizens should receive a fixed cash benefit from the government. His argument is fairly glib (I have to wonder if he genuinely believes he’s satisfactorily dealt with the issue in just four paragraphs), but it nonetheless raises some common objections to the policy that I that I think it’s instructive to unpack.

Here’s the key section of Boles’ argument, from his book Square Deal:

The main objection to the idea of a universal basic income is not practical but moral. Its enthusiasts suggest that when intelligent machines make most of us redundant, we will all dispense with the idea of earning a living and find true fulfilment in writing poetry, playing music and nurturing plants. That is dangerous nonsense. Mankind is hard-wired to work. We gain satisfaction from it. It gives us a sense of identity, purpose and belonging. We may redefine work to include child-rearing and taking care of elderly relatives and finally start valuing these contributions properly. But we should not be trying to create a world in which most people do not feel the need to work. Nor should we separate the concept of income from the concept of effort

The crucial claim here, and the bit I want to focus on, is that “Mankind is hard-wired to work”. On one interpretation of this claim, Boles’ argument is redundant. If by ‘hard-wired’, Boles is saying that humans are naturally motivated to work, then this desire should be unaffected by being granted a basic income. Indeed, this assumption that people fundamentally want to work underlies some basic income advocates’ belief that the policy could encourage employment – for example, giving them financial space to start a business, pay for childcare and transport or invest in skills.

Alternatively, Boles might think that people are, on the whole, inclined to work, but that (some) people can be diverted from this path if the incentives are strong enough. But then he has to explain why that is a bad thing: if people weigh up their options and choose not to work, why are they wrong to do so? Framing it in this way, we see that Boles’ argument must be a paternalistic one.* When Boles says that humans are ‘hard-wired’ to work, he is saying there is something fundamental about human nature that means that people are better off for working, even if they do not necessarily recognise this for themselves.

For some, that would be reason enough to throw out Boles’ argument – there are those that believe paternalism is always wrong. For the rest of us, what should we make of Boles’ claim? Is he correct that work is inevitably part of a good life?

I think there are two major weaknesses in this argument. First, there is the ambiguity in what counts as ‘work’. At first blush, it appears that Boles is only referring to paid work (“earning a living”). But then he talks about “redefining work” to include care for children and the elderly. But if we’re expanding the notion in such a way, it’s not clear why the activities he explicitly dismisses – writing poetry, playing music and gardening – should not count as work. And then there’s the problem of what all this means for the career poets, musicians and gardeners in our current society. The best I can come up with is that there might be a difference between activities that serve somebody else’s needs and those that are purely self-indulgent: maybe the difference between the professional and the amateur is that the professional plays for others’ benefit. But this needs more clarity, and I’m not convinced the distinction is significant enough to bear the weight of Boles’ argument.

Second, despite Boles’ claims about universal human nature, there is the fact that many people appear to have lived perfectly fulfilled, satisfied lives without working. There are retirees, for a start, who tend to be among the happiest members of society. Some might think that’s because they’ve earned a rest after a lifetime of hard work. But reaching retirement age has a greater positive effect on the life satisfaction of the unemployed. Throughout history, there are plenty of aristocrats that seem to have flourished without working a day in their lives, and some in the 1% continue to do so today. And Boles’ attitude to work is a total inversion of the view of ancient Greek and Roman elites, many of whom believed work was inherently degrading.

This doesn’t mean that many people, at least in our current society, are not better off in work than out of it. Nor does it necessarily mean that a basic income is a good idea – there are plenty of other objections that it needs to address. But the ‘moral’ objection that humans are ‘hard wired’ to work is much flimsier than Nick Boles seems to think.

*There is another route objectors to a basic income could pursue here: that the refusal of work is bad because of its impact on others (i.e. it requires others to take up the slack to fund one’s lifestyle), but this does not appear to be the thrust of Boles’ argument.

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