The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith recently published in English a wonderful summary of Catholic teaching on markets and money. Oeconomicae et pecuniariae quaestiones discusses broad principles and then applies them to specific situations, including the most recent financial crisis, the LIBOR rigging scandal, and the abuse of derivatives.

One development that lacks explicit mention, however, is Universal Basic Income (UBI). The reason for this may be that UBI is more of a concept and has yet to be practiced on a large scale. (Finland recently ended a large-scale trial of UBI. Several cities are experimenting with it. Italy’s new populist coalition government has made basic income a central plank.) However, we can glean some important principles from the document that do apply to UBI.

The need for a program like UBI is apparent. The economy has advanced at tremendous speed, producing a significant amount of global wealth over the last several decades. However, one area the remains particularly troubling is the massive inequality that plagues our societies. Inequality is an issue that has greatly concerned both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis.

UBI would be a direct and efficient way to redistribute that wealth. 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 on many forms and 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 really rely for a basic standard of living.

UBI Poses Risks

The risks to human dignity of implementing UBI are many. While many internet commentators have suggested that UBI would create an entire generation of couch potatoes, and others have made arguments that UBI would wreck economies, I don’t find these arguments helpful or relevant to more central issues.

In fact, I reject the prejudiced arguments of those who suggest UBI creates laziness in others. I am also open to the possibility that UBI for the poor may function as an economical alternative to a mish-mash of means-tested welfare programs, though its economical feasibility as a fully livable income replacement seems more limited.

Work Is Good

Here I wanted to focus on a more specific concern: UBI, in whatever way it is actually implemented, must uphold the dignity of man as a subject of work.

Work is good!

Even our work must be “for” something. Our work points to something, an end. What is the end of work? As with all things, it is the love of Jesus Christ. The CDF makes clear that all areas of life are subject to ethical principles:

The proper orientation of reason can never be absent from any area of human activity. It follows that there can be no area of human action that legitimately claims to be either outside of  or impermeable to ethical principles based on liberty, truth, justice and solidarity.

More specifically to work, 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.

Man is the subject of his work, writes St. John Paul II in Laborem Exercens. From this basic anthropological underpinning we can see that work serves man, not the other way around. Work serves man in his personal development and also in his relationships with others.

The CDF writes that we are made for communion with each other. Through work, we come to trust one another, depend on one another, and take responsibility for our actions.  

Work is not some solipsistic form of self-actualization. As St. John Paul II discusses in his encyclical, there is a “social order of work.” Work situates man within his family and his community. We “become more a human being” in our work as it becomes apparent that our work is for ourselves, yes, but for others as well. We are made for each other.

St. John Paul II writes:

Work is a good thing for man–a good thing for his humanity–because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes “more a human being”.

In the CDF’s language, through work, we become “allies” in the construction of the common good that, in an ideal world, reaches every person simultaneously.

St. John Paul II writes:

[M]an combines his deepest human identity with membership of a nation, and intends his work also to increase the common good developed together with his compatriots, thus realizing that in this way work serves to add to the heritage of the whole human family, of all the people living in the world.

UBI Can Upend Relationships

But whereas the “subject” of work is man who builds up these relationships, UBI risks impeding the right-ordering of relationships. It can “depersonalize” work, mediating relationships by interjecting the State into this concrete part of life. In so doing, the State can isolate man from his neighbor.

Pope Francis describes some of these concerns when he discusses unemployment in his encyclical. Jobs have a function greater than the income they provide. Quoting Pope Benedict XVI, Francis writes:

The loss of jobs also has a negative impact on 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”.

In a more political sense, UBI itself, while attempting to cure one kind of inequality, results in another type of inequality, an inequality of power. UBI risks subverting man’s relationship to the state and stripping man of his natural rights and freedom.

This long quote from John XXIII is particularly prescient. I quote him at length here from his encyclical, Mater et Magistra:

But however extensive and far-reaching the influence of the State on the economy may be, it must never be exerted to the extent of depriving the individual citizen of his freedom of action. It must rather augment his freedom while effectively guaranteeing the protection of his essential personal rights. Among these is a man’s right and duty to be primarily responsible for his own upkeep and that of his family. Hence every economic system must permit and facilitate the free development of productive activity.

Moreover, as history itself testifies with ever-increasing clarity, there can be no such thing as a well-ordered and prosperous society unless individual citizens and the State co-operate in the economy. Both sides must work together in harmony, and their respective efforts must be proportioned to the needs of the common good in the prevailing circumstances and conditions of human life.

Experience has shown that where personal initiative is lacking, political tyranny ensues and, in addition, economic stagnation in the production of a wide range of consumer goods and of services of the material and spiritual order—those, namely, which are in a great measure dependent upon the exercise and stimulus of individual creative talent.

The Commodification of Work

The popular view of work in modern society is as a means, a way to earn the income that is needed to purchase the necessities of life. Within this limited and myopic view of work as a “means”, income is the end. Any number of just means then can be ordered to that end, including UBI.

The CDF rebuts this claim quite clearly:

Precisely in this inversion of the order between means and ends, where work as a good becomes an “instrument,” and money an “end”, the reckless and amoral “culture of waste” finds a fertile ground.” It has marginalized great masses of the world’s population, deprived them of decent labor, and left them “without possibilities, without any means of escape”

Man should not simply work to earn money. Rather, a just and sustainable income supports a dignified life through work. Work as a good? The thought must be foreign to so many Americans.

The reason why our view of income and work is so backwards can be traced to the commodification of work, the way that we ourselves are often treated by our employers as merely inputs in the production of some output. In these types of unjust situations, we no longer work for ourselves. Instead, we are forced, in a way, to trade our dignity for an income. This is a grave injustice.

When these situations of injustice are facilitated or created by an economic system, they “de-legitimize” that economic system. Economies should be ordered not just to the health of markets but first and foremost to the development of the individual.

The CDF writes:

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.

This devaluation of work is already a problem, one that has helped fuel the rise of populist movements in the United States and Europe. Within the perverse logic of markets, automation makes perfect sense. Significant capital investments in automated processes, especially at low interest rates, can pay remarkable dividends down the road by saving on labor costs. Theoretically, those savings can be passed along in lower prices to customers, increasing the standard of living, or it can be passed along as greater wealth for shareholders.

St. John Paul II writes:

“The error of early capitalism can be repeated wherever man is in a way treated on the same level as the whole complex of the material means of production, as an instrument and not in accordance with the true dignity of his work-that is to say, where he is not treated as subject and maker, and for this very reason as the true purpose of the whole process of production.

On the topic of automation, Pope Francis warns, quoting Benedict XVI in Caritas in Veritate:

This is yet another way in which we can end up working against ourselves. In other words, “human costs always include economic costs, and economic dysfunctions always involve human costs”. To stop investing in people, in order to gain greater short-term financial gain, is bad business for society.

Work Was Made for Man

Inequality itself is indicative of a deeper problem and creates conditions of unrest and distrust. Societies with significant inequality are not sustainable in the long run.  To that end, UBI can be an efficient tool to redistribute wealth. 

However, the goal should never be to ensure that the poor are merely “taken care of” from a financial perspective. Francis makes this clear in Laudato Si:

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.

Their material needs must be met, yes! But ideally only on a temporary basis. Worse would be a situation in which the poor are denied an opportunity to live for themselves with their own labor. This can easily happen if we fall into a trap thinking that UBI, in itself, is all the economic reform we need for the poor and deaden ourselves to their real, deeper, spiritual needs.

In accordance with Francis, St. John Paul II emphatically states that when man works, he works to sustain himself and also serve the needs of his neighbors and customers, situating him as a member of his community and building up those relationships that are necessary for the flourishing of a society. For we should never forget, as John Paul II taught us, that work was made for man, not man made for work.

Daniel Amiri is a Catholic layman, finance professional, and armchair theologian. A graduate of theology and classics from the University of Notre Dame, his studies coincided with the papacy of Benedict XVI whose vision, particularly the framework of “encounter” with Christ Jesus, has heavily influenced his thoughts.  He is a husband and a father to three beautiful children. He serves on parish council and also enjoys playing soccer and coaching his daughter’s soccer team.

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6 Responses

  1. chris dorf says:

    Wondering how you understand the role and any ethical concerns of investment income. The group http://www.CESJ.org (Center for Economic and Social Justice) believe in a ‘Just Third Way’ which has everyone sharing in investment income so as to be owners. Michael Greaney writes extensively in his blog
    at http://just3rdway.blogspot.com/ regarding the philosophical and theological concerns from a natural law perspective.
    chris dorf

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      All investment income generally? I’m not familiar with the concept of a “Just Third Way” but I’ll look into it.

      At its root, investment income is a share in the profits of a company that has used investor capital to fund company projects. Ideally, at every step in this process, the fundamental questions will include, above all, an analysis of how those decisions may impact others. The three recent Popes have reiterated that every question of finance and economics is fundamentally a moral question. The investor, the executive, the board of managers, etc. All must constantly orient themselves to the common good.

  2. Ralph says:

    Catholics should check out economist Bill Mitchell’s blog for critiques of UBI. Mitchell has written many articles on the issue but I will post a link to one of them that includes links to his other articles.

    http://bilbo.economicoutlook.net/blog/?p=35498

    Mitchell supports a Job Guarantee instead which would probably be more in line with Catholic teaching than a UBI.

  3. Marthe Lépine says:

    In my opinion, a fundamental mistake made in most discussions of work is a confusion between employment and work. There are many types of work that are not considered as “real”work, and some of these can be much more favourable to the dignity of workers than, for example, repetitive and mind-numbing work on some assembly line, and many of these work activities would go a long way towards the good of individual workers and their families, but are most often devalued as being only “leisure”activities that should not be allowed to “interfere” with a worker’s duties to his or her employer. It is a fact, for example that too many women nowadays are expected to have two full-time jobs, paid work for an employer, and unpaid work within the household. The perception of people on social assistance spending their days on a couch drinking beer in front of the TV set is a very damaging caricature, but one that appears to be widely believed in my country. In addition, some of the social assistance systems can have features that are discouraging a person from getting paid work, for example a case involving the daughter of a friend of mine who would actually be poorer if she made the effort to get a job that only paid the minimum wage, since her family would no longer qualify for their housing subsidy because the income criteria applied for the housing subsidy do not take into account the cost of day care when a mother is at work, and my friend’s family would not be able to pay the market price for their apartment. And this is only one among hundreds of examples of the bureaucratic obstacles facing the recipients of social assistance, which could be avoided with a UBI.

    • Daniel Amiri Daniel Amiri says:

      I think you point to a couple weaknesses in my article which I would love to explore more later. JPII in Laborem Exercens makes clear at the beginning that he is not speaking of “employment” when he speaks of work.

      “Work means any activity by man, whether manual or intellectual, whatever its nature or circumstances; it means any human activity that can and must be recognized as work, in the midst of all the many activities of which man is capable and to which he is predisposed by his very nature, by virtue of humanity itself.”

      One could easily misread my piece and think the work I am referring to is only that work which produces an income. Rather, I think John XXIII describes this more correctly when he says that people have the right (and duty!) to sustain themselves and their families through work. This may be outside an employer/employee relationship. But the basic principle applies.

      I am also open to the possibility, which I state in my article, that UBI may be an efficient alternative to a collection of welfare programs which can and do result in perverse incentives.

      I keep coming back to Francis’ point though that no matter what we do, we cannot lose sight of our need to ensure that all have the opportunity to work and sustain themselves and their families. Financial assistance can be only “part” of the solution. It’s never the whole solution.

  4. Marthe Lépine says:

    Sorry, if forgot to click “Notify me of follow-up comments by e-mail. Please add this to my previous post.Thanks

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