Saturday, 7 January 2017

Perspectives on the Universal Basic Income

Working with taro roots in Hawaii
Subconsciously, I guess my initial perspective on the concept of the Universal Basic Income was informed by the Old Testament injunction in Genesis 3:19 that "by the sweat of your brow you will eat your food."

This was reinforced by what St Paul wrote in 2 Thessalonians 3:10 that "the one who is unwilling to work shall not eat."

Other more positives passages in Genesis, in which labour is presented as a sharing in God's work of creation, also add to this view:

"God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Gen. 1:28)

"The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." (Gen. 2:15)

Joseph Cardijn's theology of work is powerful here:

"Young workers, are not machines, or animals or slaves," he wrote. "They are the sons, the collaborators, the heirs of God.

Thinking from this perspective, welfare payments such as unemployment, sickness, disability benefits and the like only seemed justifiable on the basis that those who were unemployed, sick or disabled could not work. Moreover, leaving people to subsist on welfare payments hardly seemed to benefit those who had to survive on such welfare benefits. Why then would we extend this to the point of implementing a universal basic income?

The first time that I remember feeling challenged in this perspective was when I was on a visit to Fiji in 1988.

There, many people still lived in a semi-traditional lifestyle based on fishing and farming for yams, which grew in profusion. What sense did a life based on nine-to-five work make in such an environment? Moreover, it did not mean that people did "nothing." Rather they focused more on cultural activities.

In any case, the point here is not to present Fiji as any kind of original Garden of Eden (and certainly not to imply that people in Fiji do not work) but simply to note that living comfortably did not imply the need for intensive sweat of one's brow.

Reflecting on this it dawned on me that the starting point of the New Testament was a Garden of Eden - not a desert! In other words, God provides humankind with the basic needs of life before he invited people to share in his work of creation.

Yet in the modern world, particularly in cities, it is not possible to go out and fish or gather yams for one's minimum subsistence - as harshly illustrated by the increasing number of homeless on the streets of many of the world's cities.

From this perspective, the concept of the universal basic income (UBI) can be viewed as providing the equivalent of the fish and yams available in an abundant natural environment. In other words, as God did in the biblical Garden of Eden, first we have to provide people with the means they need to survive.

This is a concept very far removed from the increasingly punitive concept of welfare that our politicians have come to embrace.

In any case, over the last few weeks, I have started to read more about the concept as it picks up steam in the media.

In this blog, I hope to share some of the key articles that I find. Hopefully, I may even find time to add a few more thoughts of my own.

No comments:

Post a Comment