The pursuit of happiness: The American cultural case for a universal basic income

What could we do if we liberated our country from the self-inflicted wounds of the Protestant work ethic?

Published January 14, 2017 4:00PM (EST)

 (<a href=''>NEstudio</a> via <a href=''>Shutterstock</a>)
(NEstudio via Shutterstock)

A woman spends her Friday night polishing spoons, cleaning tables and serving food at a truck stop in the middle of nowhere. On her tired feet for nearly the entirety of her eight-hour shift, she must also contend with lecherous men, rude diners and poor tippers. Barely able to keep her eyes open, she drives the empty highway home, where she will wake up her sleeping child, only to kiss him goodnight. Then, she will share her profits of the evening with the babysitter.

You might wrestle with the temptation to believe that if she simply had the money in her pocket, she could take the night off work, spend quality time with her son, and avoid the experience of smiling through borderline sexual harassment from her customers. No, American morality teaches us that to rob this woman of the hell of her horrible job would do her a great disservice; that as she relaxes with a glass of wine and watches her son play, she will soon feel overwhelmed with depression. Without waiting tables, her life has no meaning.

The government of Finland recently announced that it plans to experiment with a universal basic income by providing 2,000 unemployed citizens with the equivalent of $587 per month. The Netherlands is developing a similar plan. Canada might experiment with UBI in Ontario, and there are many members of Parliament in France who have advocated for the program. Even in the United States, a small but surprising coalition of libertarians and progressives support the creation of a universal basic income system, but as anyone would expect, they disagree on the particulars of distribution.

Discussions of the idea have already become smoggy from the pollution of American careerist and work-obsessed clichés. For centuries, the American people have suffered the self-inflicted wounds of the Protestant work ethic — the belief that work makes the worker holy, work gives life meaning and that idle hands are the “devil’s plaything.” It is important to remember Albert Camus’ rejection of the phrase “work ethic” on the grounds that ethics are about choices, and for most people, work is not a choice. It is a necessity. Yes, everyone, in the literal sense, has the choice not to work, but the threats of starvation and homelessness are rather coercive.

An inescapable irony of contemporary conversations about work in the United States is that those with control of the megaphone enjoy their work, making them quite different from most Americans. In 2014, Forbes reported that a slim majority -- 52 percent -- of Americans do not like their jobs, and a Gallup survey shows that only 30 percent of workers feel “engaged” or “inspired” while on the job. Meanwhile, half of Americans admit to quitting a job in order to escape the clutches of a “bad boss.” As Camus would have understood, the disengaged, uninspired employee who hates the supervisor is not showing up on time every morning for “meaning” and the reward of “self-reliance.” She is there for the check.

Someone whose job is to study topics that fascinate him, and explain his conclusions to an enthusiastic audience might not make for the most reliable narrator on work life in America. Oren Cass, for example, writes in the National Review that the UBI is a “terrible idea” because “Those who work to provide for themselves know that they are playing a critical and worthwhile role.” In addition to the thrill of denouncing assistance for the poor, Cass works for the think tank the Manhattan Institute. Maybe someone should check if he has changed his mind on the virtues of work after he has spent a few years cleaning the floor of a gas station bathroom.

Josh Barro at Business Insider writes that proposals for a universal basic income “need to die” because they cannot replace the “sense of reward and purpose” that comes from a job. That is probably true of his job, but does it apply to the fast-food worker? The dishwasher?

A hilarious development in American life is nostalgia for miserable jobs. Suddenly, everyone wants to work in a factory, and pines for the lost paradise of the coal mine. It appears that everyone is avoiding the obvious. Most people don’t like work, don’t want to work and would have better lives if they could spend less time at work. In the depths of their souls, most people are aware of this reality. When someone retires, friends and family congratulate the retiree, and throw a party. They don’t struggle with anxiety over how she will survive without any sense of reward, purpose and meaning.

Reward, purpose and meaning are the abstractions meant to pacify the poor and the working class. The rich have wealth, comfort and pleasure. They also have a universal basic income. In Jacobin, Matt Bruenig recently reported that 10 percent of national income is paid to the top 1 percent of income earners as capital income. It is curious that no one worries about the mental health defects they will experience due to lack of meaning.

What provides most people with the greatest satisfaction, nourishment and fulfillment is high-quality relationships, creativity and contribution to a cause of personal conviction. Conservative commentators argue that the removal of an incentive to “work hard” is a potential problem with universal basic income. It is actually a benefit.

Few people could afford to live solely off of their UBI payment. So, while they would still have careers, they might have more time and energy to devote to the passions and priorities outside of their careers. They could dedicate themselves to the artistic or artisanal project they once felt too tired to consider making part of their weekly routine. They could enjoy more time with family and friends, and they might have the necessary surplus of energy to volunteer for charities and political campaigns that they support. Leisure might also become more abundant, and offer treatment for the addiction of careerist madness, along with the cutthroat competition of many offices, that leads Americans to sacrifice millions of paid vacation days every year.

The belief that most people, if given some free money every month, would transform into gluttonous sloths requires paralytic cynicism. Critics of the UBI are correct that most people want to feel the joys of accomplishment and importance, but it is stunningly narrow to believe that the average adult will spiritually and intellectually profit solely in traditional employment. It is more likely that the typical person will devote available time and energy to pleasurable and purposeful activities, even if they do not pay well or at all.

Universal basic income will not create a utopia — poverty will still exist, and many people will still spend too much time at what one Swiss economist calls “bullshit jobs,” but it will provide the poor with relief, and push everyone else in the direction of work-life balance, and overall sanity.

The founding fathers made America’s establishment unique with the inclusion of the odd, but endlessly arousing phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” For far too long, Americans have substituted the pursuit of work and the pursuit of profit. Less work might mean more happiness. Happier people will create a happier country.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters," and "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" and the forthcoming, "Exurbia Now: Notes from the Battleground of American Democracy." He lives in Indiana. 

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Finland Universal Basic Income Work Work-life Balance