Andrew Yang is a man ahead of his time. Mark my words: within our lifetime, his ominous-sounding “Freedom Dividend—basically a universal basic income, or UBI—will become a plank of at least one of our two major political parties. And how could it be otherwise?
Mr. Yang argues (correctly) that the developed world is going through a “fourth Industrial Revolution” characterized by automation and outsourcing. There are fewer and fewer careers available to American workers who only possess a high school education; the best jobs are in technology and capital. So, how do we ensure that all Americans can make ends meet?
Heretofore, the answer has been simply to invent new jobs that don’t actually serve any purpose, but allows capital to be funneled from corporations into the pockets of non-productive workers. As the economist David Graeber points out in his (unfortunately titled) essay for Strike! Magazine, “On the Phenomenon of Bulls**t Jobs,” we’ve long since reached the point where Americans could work an average of 15 hours a week. And yet,
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rather than allowing a massive reduction of working hours to free the world’s population to pursue their own projects, pleasures, visions, and ideas, we have seen the ballooning of not even so much of the “service” sector as of the administrative sector, up to and including the creation of whole new industries like financial services or telemarketing, or the unprecedented expansion of sectors like corporate law, academic and health administration, human resources, and public relations. And these numbers do not even reflect on all those people whose job is to provide administrative, technical, or security support for these industries, or for that matter the whole host of ancillary industries (dog-washers, all-night pizza delivery) that only exist because everyone else is spending so much of their time working in all the other ones.
This, by the way, is the phenomenon of “job-creating entrepreneurs” that Republicans have so long celebrated.
George H.W. Bush famously said that the solution to those who can’t secure one of these pointless, low-wage jobs isn’t welfare: it’s charity. We don’t need statist solutions to the problem of economic inequality—only a renewed sense of noblesse oblige, where the wealthy take extra care to provide for the needs of those “less fortunate.”
Of course, nobody seriously believes that’s the solution in 2020. The rich simply aren’t giving more relative to the needs of those losing jobs to automation and outsourcing. Those who still oppose government-based solutions—the doyens of National Review cruises and Heritage Foundation cocktail parties—don’t bother with the noblesse oblige thing anymore. Free-market fundamentalists are reduced to the sneering elitism of Kevin D. Williamson, whose solution to the wage gap is (quite literally) to let the poor idiots starve. As he wrote in his infamous 2016 column for National Review, “The Father-Führer,”
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible…. The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles.
Needless to say, no believing Catholic could endorse such a callous attitude towards the poor. Traditional Christians are increasingly estranged from the Conservative Movement™ precisely because of the increasingly dogmatic and irrational adherence to the dogmata of market fundamentalism.
The solution proposed by progressives like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders is higher-education subsidies. Their reasoning follows this basic formula: people with college degrees earn more; we need to raise wages; therefore, more people should go to college. Of course, these subsidies aren’t contingent on what these students choose to study. A Warren or Sanders administration would only succeed in flooding the job market with yet more unskilled, gender-fluid, left-wing youffs who think they’re entitled to a six-figure salary and an apartment in Manhattan because they graduated from a C-list liberal arts college with a major in photography and a minor in naval-gazing.
Still, even if we could dictate what they study, how far would that get us? 300 million Americans can’t all get jobs developing smartphone apps or selling financial services for Goldman Sachs. There’s a limited need for Lyft drivers and Buzzfeed reporters. (In the latter case, it’s somewhere in the neighborhood of zero.) The progressive push for free college education is a smokescreen to hide the deep structural faults in our economy.
Then along comes Mr. Yang, with his very simple proposal: just give everyone a bit of money. If we can’t find jobs for these people—if we literally don’t need them to work—why go on inventing these “bulls**t jobs”? Raise corporate taxes and income taxes on the super-wealthy, and use that money to put cash in the hands of ordinary American families.
Follow the logic far enough and we arrive at the post-labor (and post-capital) world of Star Trek, where automation has extended, not only to growing food, but even to cooking: tell the computer you want a hot fudge Sunday, and—poof! One materializes before your eyes. And, with the astonishing technological advances that have occurred over the last fifty years, Gene Roddenberry’s utopia seems less and less like science fiction and more and more like prophecy. If we continue on this path to full automation, Mr. Yang’s proposal is the necessary first step towards phasing work, money—the economy itself—out of human society.
The question, then, is whether that future is desirable. The social doctrines of the Church are unanimous on this matter: No, it isn’t—for two reasons.
First, work is integral to our humanity. In our daily toil (like our respite on the Sabbath) we show ourselves to be made in the image and likeness of God: He labored for six days creating the universe, each day noting contentedly that what He made was good, and rested on the seventh.
Of course, without actual, productive labor, man could still exercise his creative powers—building model planes, for instance, or writing music. But work isn’t the same thing as a hobby, or even art. For man to work for his own substance has been integral to the human experience ever since our first parents were expelled from the garden. “Cursed is the ground because of you,” the Lord said to Adam; “in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.”
But in this retribution we also find our redemption. As Dorothy Sayers wrote in her astonishing essay “Why Work?”, the Christian understands that “every man should do the work for which he is fitted by nature.” This is true economic freedom: the freedom for laymen to pursue their secular vocation. And no man’s vocation is to be an idler, a tinkerer, or a hobbyist. As Sayers explains, every rightly-ordered soul feels a deep need to create something, not only honest and beautiful, but useful. In doing so, the secular vocation becomes a sacred vocation. Only then, in our postlapsarian state, can we feel a wholesome awe towards our Creator and His creation.
Indeed, the further removed we become from this aspect of our nature—the fewer there are among us who put plow to earth, or knife to flesh, or hammer to nail—the more distant and indistinct God’s beneficence becomes, and the easier it is to take His blessings for granted. (How few of us pray for rain, or for a good harvest? Yet these were, not so long ago, a mainstay of our liturgical life.)
In his landmark encyclical Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII observed that, “according to natural reason and Christian philosophy, working for gain is creditable, not shameful, to a man, since it enables him to earn an honorable livelihood.” A fully automated economy would leave man with only the most dishonorable of livelihoods: mooching off our own technology. It would be a complete inversion of the natural order, where the creator is dependent on—enslaved to—his creation.
Anyway, where would St. Joseph have fit into such an economy? How could we, the laity, imitate his simple life of honest toil? Even Our Blessed Lord chose for Himself the life of a carpenter’s apprentice before He began his public ministry. His childhood home was the modest dwelling of a village tradesman. And, as Fr. Vincent McNabb pointed out, He called no farmers as His disciples, for
the Word made flesh was not minded to disturb the Divine order which made land-work the primary duty and need of beings demanding daily bread to keep them in being… Land-work was an institution so indispensable and divine that from it He took no workers, but only the wisdom of parables.
Second, private property is integral to lawful freedom. Again, quoting Leo XIII, Catholic social teaching absolutely upholds the common man’s “possibility of increasing his resources and of bettering his condition in life.” This can only come if he’s in full command of the just wage he earns from his labor.
This is why the Church criticizes any system that limits a man’s ability to provide for his family’s needs, whether that system is capitalist or socialist. It opposes the twinned tyrannies of Big State and Big Business. And Mr. Yang’s universal basic income combines the worst of both worlds. It’s a conspiracy between the government and corporate elites to provide a pittance for the jobless masses.
In short, a man can neither possess his full dignity nor his full liberty if he depends on handouts. And that is precisely where the UBI is leading us: a massive, global welfare state. Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical Centessimus Annus (published to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Rerum Novarum) warns against any system that reduces man to “a molecule within the social organism,” causing a “loss of human energies and impinges his ability to earn “a living through his own initiative.”
Such a system must be opposed by all Catholics, whether it calls itself capitalism, socialism, or the Freedom Dividend. It denies man his God-given right to work, and to the fruits (both economic and moral) of that work. It denies his very humanity.
If left unchecked, our economy will continue slouching towards Mr. Yang’s post-human dystopia. What, then, is the alternative? The answer is easier to articulate than to implement, but it’s perfectly obvious: we must bring jobs in manufacturing and agriculture back to the United States, and to support local crafts and the trades.
This is why President Trump is, oddly enough, one of the great implementers of Catholic social teaching in our time. It’s why he’s earned such strong support from factory workers in Ohio, farmers in Michigan, ranchers in Nebraska, and miners in West Virginia. He understands that men of simple and honest toil are the backbone of any stable society. They are not “obsolete” in the modern economy. On the contrary: any economy that can’t sustain their work is itself obsolete. Markets exist to serve families and communities—not the other way around.
President Trump’s protectionist measures have been decried by wonks on both the Left and the Right as retarding economic growth. These are precisely the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” Edmund Burke warned against: men who can only see society through the lens of GDP and per capita income. It’s true that our economy no longer provides the kind of jobs that make that possible. But, again, the fault is with the economy, not the workers.
The transition back to a more human, localized, family-centered economy would have its little agonies. It would mean rejecting consumerism, the ethic of avarice—the “civilization of greed and waste,” as Sayers calls it. and embracing frugality. Families wouldn’t be able to buy the new iPhone every year; they might have to buy a used Ford instead of leasing a new Lexus. They would have to make careful investments in durable, locally made furniture instead of remodeling their living room every five years at Ikea.
We’ll have to throw away decades of conventional wisdom, which is really so much status-signaling silliness, like the superiority of white-collar jobs over blue-collar ones, or the idea that a college degree somehow makes one more intelligent or well-rounded (these days, the reverse is usually closer to the truth). And we’ll have to revolutionize completely how we measure “standard of living.” A life lived for trinkets and baubles—mere things—is no life at all. But a life lived for God and neighbor, honest work and wholesome leisure: this is what man is made for.
If we can’t accept a few minor hindrances to our comfort and convenience, we’ll continue to watch the decline of human dignity and natural liberty across the West. We’re slouching, not towards Star Trek, but towards Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World: a society that surrenders its dignity and liberty for the sake of carnal pleasures. Culture will continue to be replaced by mere technique, and families will continue to be sacrificed to a venal, self-serving individualism.
This isn’t a recent development. The trend has been progressing at least since the first Industrial Revolution. The Church has consistently warned against the dehumanizing effects of our modern economies, though Catholics (both on the Left and the Right) have paid little heed, preferring to ally ourselves with secular ideologies like laissez-faire capitalism and “democratic” socialism.
Someday, we’ll realize there’s no substitute for the humane economy—the economy that places families before corporations—the economy grounded in communities, not the state—the economy that provides for man’s material needs, but understands that his spiritual needs must come first. Hopefully, when that day comes, there will still be time to act.
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