Author’s Note: This article borrows heavily from my 2018 response to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith’s Oeconomicae et Pecnuniariae Quaestiones. This updated and rewritten article incorporates more recent ideas and examples. The conversation on Universal Basic Income was reinvigorated by a recent letter from Pope Francis to leaders of popular movements. These comments were later clarified by Cardinal Michael Czerny, who told America Media, “The Spanish expression ‘salario universal’ can well be translated into English as ‘universal basic wage.’ This is not to be understood as equivalent to universal basic income, but to a different notion, coming from the pope’s Argentinian background and his involvement with cartoneros [residents who collect and recycle trash for compensation] in Buenos Aires.”
The worlds of economy and finance have undergone dramatic transformations in the years since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Innovations such as automation have become increasingly prevalent, and modern financial instruments have become increasingly sophisticated and esoteric. New vehicles of wealth-generation have isolated people and in many ways not only reduced them to mere consumers, but — to some extent — bystanders to a machine economy. These changes have made it necessary for the Church to speak out against what Pope Francis calls the “technocratic paradigm,” in which economies denigrate the inherent dignity of the human person in a global pursuit of wealth and utility (Laudato Si’ 106-114). In 2018, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith published a summary of Catholic teachings on markets and the economy, Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones. Oeconomicae clarifies many of the practical principles that are necessary for human flourishing in the modern age. The document also addresses several specific situations, including the Global Financial Crisis, the LIBOR rigging scandal, and the abuse of derivatives.
One concept that the document does not specifically mention, however, is Universal Basic Income (UBI). Of course, UBI is more of an idea at this point, and there are few significant examples that we can assess to understand the pros and cons of such programs. Finland recently ended a large-scale trial of a UBI-like program. Several other places in the world have experimented with it, to varying degrees. Italy’s recently formed populist party, the Five Star Movement, successfully pushed for a “citizen’s income” that is somewhat different from a pure UBI. It was rolled out in 2019. Even though Oeconomicae and other Church documents have not directly spoken about a UBI, many of these documents still outline some important principles that are applicable to the concept. These principles include the evil of inequality and the importance of work for integral human development.
The Poor Have Been Left Behind
The problems that UBI is intended to solve are readily apparent. From the end of the 2008 financial crisis through the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, the world economy advanced at tremendous speed, producing a significant amount of global wealth while raising the average income and the standard of living. Generally speaking, however, the improvements in wealth and income have not been distributed evenly. Ultra-low interest rates have made it possible for wealthy asset-owners to borrow cheaply and invest more money into profitable ventures. Meanwhile, younger people during this time were financially crippled by the high cost of student loans, expensive housing, and — to top it off — paltry interest rates on whatever “emergency savings” they managed to build up after following the advice of experts. The “haves” have thrived while the “have-nots” have been running at full speed just to subsist.
The massive amount of inequality embedded in our financial system plagues societies. It is an issue that has greatly concerned the Church, and has been addressed many times by both Popes Benedict and Francis. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict writes,
Through the systemic increase of social inequality, both within a single country and between the populations of different countries (i.e. the massive increase in relative poverty), not only does social cohesion suffer, thereby placing democracy at risk, but so too does the economy, through the progressive erosion of “social capital”: the network of relationships of trust, dependability, and respect for rules, all of which are indispensable for any form of civil coexistence (32).
Pope Francis treats inequality at length in both Laudato Si’ and Evangelii Gaudium, where he explained that inequality “engenders violence.” He also summarized his views in a single tweet in 2014, saying, “Inequality is the root of social evil.”
UBI would be a direct and efficient way to combat this inequality. In the words of Charles Clark, a Vatican economic advisor, and as quoted by America Magazine:
A basic income is the easiest way to bring everyone above the poverty line and reduce income inequality without making major structural changes to the economy.
UBI can take many forms and can be funded in a variety of ways. Some have posited UBI as a type of welfare replacement, a way to more efficiently deliver resources to those who are already receiving benefits from the government. Others have proposed that UBI be a livable income upon which all citizens can rely for a very basic standard of living. In either case, it is recognized that UBI — perhaps more explicitly than other types of government welfare programs — is a wealth redistribution plan. Successfully implemented, it would be a concrete and direct way to ensure that the poor have a basic means of paying for at least some necessities and would give them more freedom to pursue dignified work.
Work Is For Man
Man is the “subject of work,” writes Pope John Paul II in Laborem Exercens. This basic truth undergirds any authentic approach to the economy and welfare programs. In line with Pope Francis’s warnings in Laudato Si’ against the technocratic paradigm, man must never be reduced to an object within an economic system designed to produce greater profit and wealth, even one that gives generously to the poor. Man is not an instrument of economic exchange; rather, work and the economy are at the service of man (Oeconomicae 15).
The Church has outlined in numerous and various ways how important work is to man. Most succinctly, Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si’:
Work is a necessity, part of the meaning of life on this earth, a path to growth, human development and personal fulfilment. (128)
We must remember, however, that UBI is not in itself a cure for economic inequality. It is true that UBI can provide a necessary offset to the inequalities that have been created by automation, technology, and globalization. Still, we must be aware that any welfare program can become a government’s salve to soothe the pain of unemployment and inequality while the work toward the real cure — dignified work — is postponed indefinitely. To this end, Pope Francis said in Laudato Si’,
It is essential that “we continue to prioritize the goal of access to steady employment for everyone.” … Helping the poor financially must always be a provisional solution in the face of pressing needs. The broader objective should always be to allow them a dignified life through work. (127-128)
This is the most significant danger of any UBI program, and perhaps the one that is most likely to divide its strongest advocates: Is UBI part of a comprehensive solution to honor people’s inherent dignity through work and wealth equality, or does it merely provide an excuse to proceed headlong into a new future built by robots and computers, in which the contributions of the poor are increasingly diminished and devalued? Through work of all kinds, people have a right and responsibility to contribute to the common good, but it is hard to escape the notion that many of UBI’s proponents only want to relieve society of the burden of “lesser” kinds of work. This still risks the elimination of many jobs, particularly the ones that might be most accessible for the poor. This is unacceptable.
Echoing Francis above, the benefits received through a UBI program are ideally temporary and are fundamentally supportive of man’s status as a subject of work within his community. Assuming that we have reached the point where many jobs are done more cheaply by computers and robots, however, we have a choice to make. We can treat the symptoms of indifference — unemployment and massive wealth inequality — through UBI, or we can find ways to reorient economies around the human person instead of the machine. Unfortunately for advocates of the latter, it appears that a lack of political will and a society completely divorced from notions of the common good and human dignity necessitate the former, at least for the present.
The coronavirus pandemic is highlighting the severity of the wealth and income discrepancy in our society. Tens of millions have recently been put out of work, while many others have been able to continue working from home. This experience highlights how important it is to embrace our communion with each other, even as it is largely through work that we come to trust one another, depend on one another, and take responsibility for the common good. As Oeconomicae says,
Every economic system is legitimate if it thrives not merely through the quantitative development of exchange but rather by its capacity to promote the development of the entire person and of every person. (10).
It is vital that governments pay careful attention to the details in their specific implementation of UBI, or else they can unwittingly further isolate man from his neighbor and from dignified work, which is where he builds up his community. UBI should be considered, but it is best implemented as only a single facet of more comprehensive wealth redistribution plans that seek to shore up the legitimacy of economies and to confirm the principle that work is good for man.