Social Justice, Book/Article Reviews

Is Living on the Dole Bad For You?

As a proponent of a UBI, I often encounter some version of the surfer objection: what if some people who could work instead spend their entire income allowance on surfing or drinking or some other unproductive activity? There are two main reasons behind this objection. Some people think it’s a bad for people to live on government benefits because it is bad for the person who isn’t working. Others object that it is unfair that taxpayers are required to provide an income for someone who doesn’t feel compelled to contribute to the economy by working (let’s set this objection aside for another post).

I was recently reading Brink Lindsey’s Human Capitalism and I came across a version of the first objection. Lindsey emphasizes labor-force participation as one of his primary policy goals. He writes, “Rampant joblessness among the less skilled is a terrible social blight” because it is bad for jobless adults who are “marginalized by their failure to contribute to the economy” and their children who are “raised in a deprived environment.” Lindsey then advocates  a dramatic overhaul of public education and work incentives,  as alternatives to programs that just cut people a check.

Then, on the excellent Free Thoughts podcast, Lindsey addressed the basic income directly. There he said that a UBI may be better than the intrusive and inefficient welfare state status quo, but he nevertheless objects to the UBI proposal(around 48 minutes):

“My own inclination would be not to basically subsidize joblessness with a basic income, but rather to have a system of wage subsidies that pay employers for hiring low-skilled people. That is, instead of accelerating the mismatch between the market value and the social minimum you now amplify the market wage to get that above the social minimum to keep people in the workforce. I think the welfare state designed with positive work incentives to keep people engaged in the economy, which then gives them incentives to develop and maintain skills and capacities is much more likely to lead to world where more people are living better lives than a world with a big unconditional dole.”

This argument is paternalistic. Lindsey opposes a UBI because people would live better lives if they were working than if they stayed home and did something else. He thinks this is true even in low-skilled and low wage jobs because he imagines the alternative (joblessness) doesn’t develop or maintain people’s skills as well. Therefore, Lindsey concludes that the welfare state should aim to get people to work.

There are several reasons to resist paternalism. The strongest reason is that paternalistic policies often violate people’s rights. But the right to a basic income is controversial, and if you think that people are not entitled to any welfare benefits than you probably won’t be moved by the paternalism objection. So a proponent of work incentives could argue that all welfare benefits are basically like gifts, and so the recipients cannot complain that a benefit they weren’t entitled to in the first place isn’t their first choice.

But even if you don’t believe that a UBI or any welfare benefits are rights, there are other reasons to reject a system of benefits that aims to make people live better lives by telling them what to do (e.g. telling them to work). First, there are epistemic concerns about the effectiveness of paternalistic policies at promoting well-being. Paternalism consists in substituting your judgment about what is good for someone in place of his own. Sure, lots of people think that a life on the dole is not ideal, but if it’s so bad then why not give people a basic income and if they want to they can still work? In contrast, if you only provide incentives to work then people who are rightly convinced that working in a low wage low-skilled job wouldn’t be a better life do not have the alternative option of not working available to them.

Second, paternalistic polices express a condescending or infantilizing judgment about people. By rejecting a UBI on the grounds that it is bad for people to live on the dole, Lindsey is saying that people cannot decide for themselves how best to live their lives. To borrow an old trope, the UBI has no problem with people going to work, but positive work incentives have a problem with the UBI. If you want to use redistribution to help the worst off, why not help them in a way that lets them choose how to live their lives?

In any case, I’m just not convinced that Lindsey is right that a life on the dole is so bad. Why does engaging in paid labor make people’s lives better and more flourishing, rather than doing some unpaid activity they love or doing nothing at all? Do early retirees, senior citizens on social security, college students, surfers, and wealthy men and women of leisure really have it so bad because they aren’t in the labor force? Is a society so bad when people can survive in it while pursuing projects that don’t pay? It’s just hard to believe that getting a monthly check could be a life-ruiner.

Even if joblessness fails to develop people’s capacities, lots of jobs are definitely worse than not-working. As a bonus a UBI may give employers incentives to make those jobs better (either higher quality or better compensated) so potential workers have incentives to take them instead of living off a UBI.

Or, if nothing else, the benefits of any alternative social welfare policy should be measured against the UBI as a benchmark. Just as global aid programs should be required to show that they are more effective than cash transfers, if any redistributive policies are justified then they must at least prove to benefit the worst-off more than a UBI. Lots of libertarians do not advocate for redistributive welfare benefits, but those who do should advocate for a system that doesn’t presume such a narrow view what can make a person’s life worthwhile.

  • Sean II

    So if X refuses to pay Y an income sufficient for Y to refrain from work, in part because X is aware of some moral-psychological harm that comes from not working*…then X is guilty of paternalistic interference with Y’s choices?

    That’s what you’re saying?

    Follow that same odd logic, and you get: the girls who refused to sleep with Eliot Rodger were “imposing” the condition of chastity upon him. Bite that bullet if you must, but why?

    * BTW, the link between unemployment and unhappiness is extremely robust, so it seems fair to start by noting: Mr. X is almost certainly right in his key premise. Life without work seems to be a miserable affair for most people.

    • Geoff

      Wouldn’t a lack of work being linked to unhappiness have a lot to do with the fact that welfare for the unemployed is pretty woeful? I’m sure those who have trust funds or whatever and don’t have to work and have both the sufficient income and time to pursue whatever they choose aren’t so miserable

      • Theresa Klein

        But at least the people with trust funds aren’t taking they money from other people by force.

      • Libertymike

        So, tell us about your experiences with “those who have trust funds or whatever” and their degree of misanthropy.

      • Sean II

        Are you kidding? The idle rich are some of the most miserable people you’ll ever meet!

      • Sean II

        On a more thorough note, here’s an interesting link:, with lots of leads to other papers.

        Highlight: “According to the literature, being unemployed features among the strongest individual determinants of unhappiness, and the non-pecuniary effect of being unemployed may be larger than the effect that stems from the associated loss of income”

        Also check out this from the always useful Bryan Caplan:

        Finally, please remember that plenty of the of the unemployment = unhappiness data comes from outside the United States, including some pretty generous welfare states.

        The bottom line is that here, research and folk wisdom strongly agree: a job is worth more than just the money it brings, and not having one is a reliable path to an unhappy life.

        • And the more is not just developing skills and capacities; it is also learning about other people and institutions and how societies work, as well as about self-development, self-discovery and finding meaning in life. People who have never held down a job and tried to improve their position (and there are lots of them nowadays) have never developed as people, never become adults.

          • Sean II

            Yes, yes, yes. I really can’t believe this is even a debate – not just among libertarians, but among smart people in general.

            The non-monetary benefits of working are so enormous, I thought everyone saw them plain and clear. I thought that was a rare point of agreement between us, the Right, and the Old Left.

            I mean, the original feminist movement was premised in large part on the very idea Jessica is denying here: that there’s something special about the social interaction and development opportunities one gets from paid work, and that a person cut off from those things is living at a major disadvantage, no matter how much material comfort you throw at them.

            Not to mention, the experiential evidence is overwhelming. People on the dole are not happy and not spontaneously productive. Retirees who actually retire into doing nothing are not happy (most of the ones I know invent second careers for themselves just as quickly as they can). Rich kids of the kind who are actually allowed not to work are not happy (I grew up rich, but the house rule was very clear, thank goodness: no work, no plan for yourself = no share of the money).

            I can’t help but wonder if Jessica has perhaps never visited a housing project or council estate. Because all you have to do is look in those places and see the thing they lack is not food, shelter, clothing, or health care.

      • Dr. Who

        Geoff, you have a remarkable theory of human psychology. You think people aren’t inherently ill-suited to be idle? You think the effect of not receiving enough handouts for sitting on your ass is more powerful than the effect of sitting on your ass?

        That view is going to be false. What kind of evidence would make you change your position?

        The clock is ticking, every day we roll by on these leftist myths is another day of substantial harm to the world and the people in it. At this point, leftists should hurry up and reverse themselves — there’s no excuse for these petty, envy-driven fantasies. It’s unethical to keep saying things we know are false.

    • Barnaby

      “Life without work seems to be a miserable affair for most people”

      At least UBI gives people the choice, if they don’t like being idle they can go back to work. If they do then I think it’s a moral choice to not let them starve/ be homeless etc

  • Theresa Klein

    There are some other reason’s why it’s bad for you.
    If you aren’t exercising skills and constantly learning new ones, then you’re going to end up without any marketable skills later in life. So if you ever want to get OFF the dole, you find you can’t. You are now hopelessly unemployable.

    • TheBrett

      Former home-makers can and do get into the workforce after divorces, even if they have to start low. It’s certainly possible, and in UBI World I suspect a lot of people just wouldn’t drop off completely anyways – they’d just reduce hours of work.

      • Jerome Bigge

        There is also the issue that the money necessary for the UBI has to come from the taxpayers in the first place or through increased deficit spending which causes inflation. Along with a reduction in the value of the dollar. A dollar today actually buys little more than a dime would back when I started working in 1959 when you figure in energy costs, living costs today. You could survive on it, but a smart person would have to move to a part of the country where living costs are as low as possible.

        • TheBrett

          That’s only a problem if it causes the tax base to drop too low, and you end up with a negative cycle of higher tax rates trying to get more revenue causing lower growth and thus lower tax revenues. Realistically you’d want to try and set the UBI at a level where it gets people at least to the poverty line and then allows them to top it off with work or wealth income if they decide they don’t want to live an austere but stable life-style, without making it so generous that it breaks the tax base before it even gets off the ground.

          Most proposals set it at around $10,000-15,000/adult person for that reason (adjusted for inflation).

      • Theresa Klein

        They do, but an employer is a lot more likely to hire someone whose absence from the workforce is explained by having children or a prolonged illness , than someone who just decided to live on the dole for years. Living on the dole tells people you have a poor work ethic and thus implies you will be lazy on the job.
        Being a homemaker doesn’t.

        • TheBrett

          It’s not like they can really tell the difference unless other people tell them, though. Besides, having the UBI would change that perspective a bit – it probably wouldn’t seem as strange to have applicants for low-paying jobs who spent a stretch of time living very austerely between jobs on it.

      • Barnaby

        In one of the few studies that have been done, hours worked fell by 1% for adult males, 3% for married women and 5% for unmarried women.

        • TheBrett

          Are you talking about the Negative Income Tax study? It’s not the same thing, especially since you lose the NIT with higher income.

          • Barnaby

            Nope, I’m talking about Mincome, one of the only empirical studies done in to the effects of UBI im aware of. It took place in Canada in the 1970s.

            The results I mentioned are, as far as I know, thought to suffer from the participants knowing that the UBI was only temporary

          • TheBrett

            The overall social outcomes were pretty good, though. And as the essay in the wikipedia article on it says, the reductions mostly happened among new mothers and teenagers.

          • Barnaby

            Yeh for sure, from what I’ve read so far, I’m pretty keen on UBI. There just seems to be a lack of empirical evidence in the arguments on here, for or against.

          • TheBrett

            There’s programs like Mexico’s Progresa that have done well, but they’re not strictly speaking UBI programs. It’s hard to test – you’d basically have to take a registry of a town, then set up a program to give the legal residents of the town a basic income for a long period of time and see what happens. Mincome, basically, but with a longer time frame.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Since you (rightly) oppose paternalism, why have a UBI at all? That’s paternalistic too, preventing people from suffering the consequences of their refusal to work.

    • TheBrett

      That’s like asking why we have a law enforcement system, as opposed to letting people suffer the consequences of being unwilling to hire guards or pay for appropriate security measures.

      • Jameson Graber

        I had an argument about this before with someone on this blog, but I really don’t understand why people don’t distinguish between “security” and “law enforcement.” The latter happens after the fact, usually, and quite often doesn’t lead anywhere. I’ve had things stolen from me. They’re not coming back. That’s life. Security *is* largely our responsibility, from locking doors to knowing basic self-defense to–dare I say it–exercising our legal rights to possess firearms.

        Also, be careful where you go with this law enforcement comparison. American police, in particular, can and have become more “paternalistic.” I don’t think we’d really like the consequences if the police really were looking over our shoulder all the time, like the children we are.

        • TheBrett

          I was making a point about UBI that technically isn’t specific to law enforcement. You could also use fire protection, and so forth. The idea is that it’s some level of basic service provided to all with no discrimination on the basis of tax contribution, at least within communities (communities with different levels of taxation will have differing levels of coverage compared to each other, and of course I’m not counting prejudice/racism/etc in coverage).

          . . . But as to your point, I’d say that security is largely our responsibility when it comes to small things, like burglaries and petty theft – stuff where the costs of pursuing convictions would be higher than the costs of the theft. Even then, though, if the overall rate of those goes up heavily, then the police get involved.

          • Jameson Graber

            OK, but the *presumption* is that each member of the community contributes something to pay for these services. There are exemptions based on inability to pay, but there isn’t a general principle that people are automatically entitled to services. I think the only circumstances under which people could ever conceive of such a principle are modern day circumstances, in which society is now so rich and complex that it appears there will always be someone to pay for everyone. But I’m skeptical.

          • TheBrett

            They’d still be paying taxes, especially since a UBI doesn’t have to be funded solely out of income taxation. If a big chunk of it was sales tax revenue, then you’d have across-the-board taxpaying.

      • TracyW

        But a law enforcement system is like an insurance system. The UBI isn’t because you get paid the money regardless of what luck you have.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      I agree that paternalism would be a bad justification for a UBI, but that isn’t why I endorse it. I am still working out the argument, which I sketched in the earlier UBI post– and I’m interested to hear what you think!

      • Aeon Skoble

        Jessica, very sorry about the delay in replying. In your earlier post on the subject, you say you’re an anarchist, but that there’s something about the current political system which makes a UBI morally necessary? I think we should be cautious about “well,I oppose the state, but given that we have the state. it should do x” arguments. I’ve made that move myself, not always correctly. Minimally, we should distinguish between the state removing barriers it has erected (ending occupational licensure, legalizing ssm) and actively doing stuff (taking Bob’s stuff to give it to Tom, locking up people who smoke pot). I think it’s right for libertarians to say “the status quo screws over poor people, and indeed helps exacerbate their condition, in order to benefit entrneched interests, so we need to oppose that,” but the way to oppose it isn’t to make a moral claim that everyone is entitled to cash that comes from someone else nonconsensually. If you want to go for a Murrayesque case for UBI, in that it would represent an improvement over the current welfare state, I could muster up some sympathy. But the idea that it’s morally required, a condition of justice, I can’t get behind that. In my view, non-consensual positive rights are false claims.

  • Ben Kennedy

    ” As a bonus a UBI may give employers incentives to make those jobs better (either higher quality or better compensated) so potential workers have incentives to take them instead of living off a UBI.”

    A UBI would decrease labor supply (as people choose not to work) which would increase labor demand and raise the price of labor. This hurts the job prospects of the low-skilled laborer who ever wants to make more than the UBI

    • Theresa Klein

      That makes no sense. The minimum wage decreases job prospects because it artificially inflates wages even though there is a strong supply of labor. But if the increase in wages is due to a *shortage* of labor, then the increase in wages doesn’t hurt anyone’s job prospects, it’s an inducement to get more people to work, because there is NOT a surplus of labor.

      • Ben Kennedy

        It doesn’t matter why the wages go up, employers will still require workers to produce a sufficient marginal product to justify their salary. That is why a labor shortage isn’t necessarily a boon – employers will adapt higher skilled (more productive) workers to the job, look to automation, outsource, etc.

        • TheBrett

          That’s if they can find a plentiful supply of higher skilled workers. If they need the labor and such workers aren’t available, they have to weight the costs of training and higher wages versus not expanding in terms of business, and often pick the former. We saw that in the late 1990s with tight labor markets – lots more employers willing to train people and pull in potential workers who were out of the labor force (why the labor force participation rate went up).

          In the case of the UBI, it mostly forces employers to either offer higher wagers for full-time workers or more flexible scheduling on hours – or both – if they want workers to work for them.

        • Jerome Bigge

          Most “service industry jobs” can’t be outsourced or automated that easily. You can produce “goods” in lots of places, but “services” generally have to be provider where the customer “is”.

      • Jerome Bigge

        True. In about 1998 to 2000 there was an effective “shortage” of labor in that the fast food places like McDonalds had to pay $8 an hour for labor when in more “normal” times the minimum wage of $5.15 would have been adequate to hire as many workers as they needed. With a UBI, an employer would be in the position of having to offer a “better deal” than what the individual would have with just the UBI. The effect would likely be similar to my experiences as an employer of security guards where I found senior citizens were actually the best workers despite the fact that they really didn’t “have to work” as they still had an income regardless.

        • Ben Kennedy

          I don’t think this would be the case – you get the UBI regardless of whether you work or not. I think the point if debate is whether or not workers would be willing to accept less than what they make today on account of the UBI supplement, and my argument there is “no” – workers would generally continue to seek their marginal product as wages regardless of supplements

    • j r

      Not sure it would work that way. A UBI would likely decrease the supply of labor from those whose labor isn’t worth all that much anyway. And much of the reason for that populations’ marginal productivity is so low is endogenous to the desire to work.

      In other words, a low-skilled worker in almost any industry in America can increase his productivity immensely simply by showing up on time everyday, doing the job diligently, and not being a problem for the manager. That guy won’t be at the bottom of the barrel for long.

      • Jerome Bigge

        Depends upon the industry. In the security guard industry wages tend to stick around the minimum wage level regardless of how “great” the worker is simply because these type of jobs can be learned quickly and performed by anyone with a grade school education. The only exception to this occurred during the latter half of Bill Clinton’s second term when there was an actual “labor shortage” here locally. The rest of the time, the security guard industry pays “minimum” and refuses to pay more.

    • Damien S.

      This seems very confused to me. A full basic income means the laborer does not need to labor. If she wants to, for purpose in life or experience or more money, she can work at whatever she wants that someone’s willing to pay for, starting at *zero* for pure volunteering. Whatever you think the aggregate price of labor is, she’s free to underbid it, down to zero.

      Also, in microeconomic terms reducing supply does not increase demand; those are two independent curves. It does raise equilibrium price. In Keynesian macroecon terms it could be complicated, but if a lot of people drop out of the workforce and live on a lower but free income, then that reduces aggregate spending, which reduces the aggregate demand for labor. And in micro terms, reducing the supply and demand curves gives complicated results.

      As for the direct effect of UBI, I think its effect would be varied. Attractive or low-stress/low-margin (like keeping an eye on things) jobs might get cheaper, as people can do them without needing to be making enough to live, while low-skilled and unpleasant jobs get more expensive, as there’s no longer a pool of workers broke and desperate enough to shovel your crap for cheap.

      • Ben Kennedy

        Right, I should have said raised the price of labor (which is true) – which would have the long run impact of decreasing demand for labor

        While it is true that subsidized people can give away their labor for free, it strikes me as implausible that people would be willing in any large numbers to give this gift to Wal-Mart (as opposed to a stay-at-home Mom’s local school library, for example). Workers at Wal-Mart will still demand at least their marginal work product

  • Focusing on welfare recipients strikes me as beside the point, as if we haven’t noticed this argument is at a permanent impasse. “Why not help them in a way that lets them choose how to live their lives?” Because worrying about people being made worse by welfare is almost by definition a rejection of the respectability of their choices. The paternalism argument, on either side, amounts to little more than preaching to the choir.

    UBI isn’t a good welfare program because it’s the least paternalistic; it’s good because it has the lowest apparatus cost. Even if Lindsey’s arguments are convincing (and I think they are, as far as they go), UBI still wins because wage subsidies for the low-skilled requires a far more expansive bureaucracy than an unconditional “give everybody a few hundred dollars a month”.

    • Damien S.

      Given that we already have an income tax apparatus, wage subsidies via Earned Income Tax Credit come nearly for free. And “a few hundred dollars a month” isn’t all that much welfare — supporters of a full basic income need at least $10,000 a year, if not more — while costing a lot when you’d doing it for everyone. ($1 trillion for the US.)

      • Jerome Bigge

        Depends upon the locality. Some places in the US are much more expensive to live while other places are the opposite. $10,000 probably wouldn’t be enough for even the lowest marginal life in some parts of California, while $10,000 in parts of Mississippi would be quite ample.

    • TracyW

      Why are you comparing only bureaucratic costs, not total costs?

      • Implicitly, the argument was “assuming total costs are the same, here’s why UBI wins”

        • TracyW

          Thanks for explaining.

  • j r

    If you are really going to dig into this issue, one of the things that you should do is to try to disaggregate the effects of being employed in productive activity from simply having a job.

    There are lots of people who are on the dole and live healthy, happy and productive lives. Take the case of a retired senior citizen who lives on some combination of social security, a private pension and savings. He isn’t working a job, but he may have hobbies and housework and the like that keep him feeling productive.

    And, conversely, there are lots of people who have jobs, but who are neither happy nor productive in those jobs. For instance, farmers and the employees of military contractors work quite hard at what they do, but in any sort of honest reckoning of those two industries, many of them are on the dole. There are farmers being paid to underproduce, because if they produced at the level they could, the market wouldn’t be able to absorb their products at a price that made sense to grow in the first place. There are military contractors being paid to produce weapons we don’t need, because some congressman made a deal to keep jobs in his district. That work is not contributing to the economy (their wages might be) and in some cases are actually destroying value.

    • Theresa Klein

      I agree that there are many people who are employed who are doing unproductive things. And many people who are unemployed who are doing productive things.

      However, I think we need to keep in mind that what counts as productive depends upon consumer choice. Both people on the dole and defense contractors benefit from being able to produce, or not, in the absence of price signals that direct their production towards things people actually want. The consumer (the taxpayer), has no choice about whether he/she wishes to buy what they are producing.

      At the end of the day, somebody has to produce the goods and services that other people need and desire, and not merely produce things for their own pleasure, or for the sake of having a job, or because their congressman got a contract for a defense contractor in their town.

      Some people seem to find it abhorrent that other people be coerced to produce certain things by “market forces”, instead of being “free” to stay home and make Japanese pottery all day, because that’s what they like doing. But ultimately, that’s what the economy really runs on. If you can’t produce something other people actually want, why should they be compelled to give you money anyway?

      • j r

        I’m not trying to make any determinations of how economically productive any individual’s labor is. That’s what wages do.

        My point is simply to say that being on the dole is obviously not “bad for you,” because lots of people are either on the dole or engaged in makework jobs, the economic equivalent of the dole, and doing just fine.

        Being idle may be bad for you, but being idle and being on the dole are not the same thing.

      • AP²

        They already are compelled. The discussion is about UBI versus the welfare status quo, not the existence of welfare itself.

  • JW Ogden

    Of course if you had a UBI you would get rid of the minimum wage and so I think some would find work that they enjoy like cooking, gardening or coaching children at very low pay. On the other hand jobs that no one likes to do like dish washer might have to be paid more. I think that more women would opt to work to provide for in family consumption.

  • Jameson Graber

    So, this post definitely pushed me away from UBI. The author generously talks about the right to a basic income as “controversial.” Let’s just be clear about what this right is: it means you can take from the rest of society without giving anything back. This doesn’t even pass the communist test, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”

    Any welfare program, whether it’s what we have now or a UBI, is paternalistic. It is based on the idea that some people can’t help themselves, so we need to help them. As a principle of justice, I am personally ok with some paternalism. Milton Friedman even listed “paternalism” as a legitimate reason to use government in his Capitalism and Freedom. While it should be limited to exceptional cases, I think justice demands we help those who truly can’t help themselves.

    But the idea that people could be entitled to something without offering anything in return just seems repugnant on its face. Sure, I imagine you could find a way to live a happy, fulfilling life on nothing more than what the rest of society gives you for free. And that would kind of make you a bad person.

    • Jerome Bigge

      If we were to replace “all” government “benefits” with the UBI, it would probably be cheaper (due to lower overhead costs) than what we have today. Medical care is an issue, but a lot of our medical costs are driven by the monopolistic nature of today’s health care. Without prescription laws, all the rest of the government regulations, it’s very likely that our health care costs would drop considerably.

  • jtkennedy

    Living on the dole is bad for the individuals the dole is coercively extracted from….

  • TracyW

    there are other reasons to reject a system of benefits that aims to make people live better lives by telling them what to do (e.g. telling them to work). ,,, Paternalism consists in substituting your judgment about what is good for someone in place of his own.

    A UBI requires taking income from people employed in the market to redistribute it to everyone. So you’re willing to harm people for the sake of other people, but you think we should reject a system where we tell people what to do for their own sake?

    It strikes me that when it comes to a UBI, you’re swallowing a whale but straining at a gnat.

  • Joey Jones

    You always find in these arguments, and Lindsey is no exception, a conflation between paid employment and useful work. There’s nothing inherently virtuous or rewarding about paid employment other than the fact it pays. Useful work (which can overlap with paid employment but isn’t co-extensive by any stretch) is what gives people purposeful days, and needn’t necessarily be paid. Harvesting your own land, raising children, volunteering, creating art all are typically unpaid. UBI
    would go some way to allowing people to pursue useful unemployment.

    The reason joblessness is experienced as a blight by many is because they’ve been conditioned for heteronymous work. The structure of schooling: turning up on time, receiving tasks from above, sets people up for work and doesn’t give them the skills for work autonomously.

    • TracyW

      Paid employment means that someone values your time more than the money they spend on you.
      Harvesting your own land, volunteering, creating art, doesn’t have that feedback signal.

      Of course, if you value doing those things more than the money you could earn from working for someone else, that illustrates that you’re adding value by your definition at least.
      But if the only reason you’re harvesting your own land, volunteering, creating art is because of a UBI then that’s a signal that what you’re doing isn’t that valuable.

      There are of course various market distortions, externalities, etc that may dfffer from this, but in a reasonably wealthy society most employed people must be adding value.

      (Raising children is different since mostly the time-intensive parts are paid for either by paying someone to raise children or by both parents accepting a lower standard of living because one stays at home and the other earns money for them both, compared to them both working).

      • Joey Jones

        Work can be valued by someone —I could be paid to dig holes and fill them in— but that doesn’t make it useful. With increased automation and longer lives, the amount of make-work has vastly increased. Even within a nominally useful job, the amount of hours people undertake just to get paid in which they don’t do anything worthwhile is staggering. Ask almost any worker if all their time is used productively.

        In a sense, the requirement for people to live on the money they earn from employment distorts employment: employers (especially in large busineses) essentially invent work to fill the eight or so hours they’re employing people for. Work always expands to take whatever time you allow it. A UBI would allow more part-time employment, and one would hope, less make-work.

        • TracyW

          Work can be valued by someone —I could be paid to dig holes and fill them in— but that doesn’t make it useful.

          I didn’t claim that all work is useful, merely that it is valued. Many people, including myself, willingly pay money for pure pleasure, eg buying paintings, attending comedy shows.

          Even within a nominally useful job, the amount of hours people undertake just to get paid in which they don’t do anything worthwhile is staggering.

          I didn’t know there were statistics on this. How many are these “staggering” hours, and what’s your source?

          Anyway, I note that:

          – customers often value an organisation having spare capacity and thus being available at times of peak. The problems, for example, with staffing a hospital or a department store only to deal with expected demand should be obvious – 50% of the time you’ll be failing to meet demand.
          – some jobs naturally mean a lot of failures to each success, eg R&D.

          employers (especially in large busineses) essentially invent work to fill the eight or so hours they’re employing people for.

          Yes, Hayek points out that this is an important part of what entrepreneurs do, they invent/find ways of using resources, including labour, productively.

          However, if you mean that employers are finding unprofitable work for people to do, given the number of people I know who have been made redundant, including myself, I doubt this.

          A UBI would allow more part-time employment, and one would hope, less make-work.

          Maybe, maybe not. You present no argument for this.

          However, an UBI would allow people to waste a lot more time on things that aren’t valuable, because it would cut off an important source of feedback.

          • Joey Jones

            I was going to get back to this sooner but it was difficult to know where to start. You’re obviously working off a very different framework of understanding about the world. I’ve no idea why you’d think “feedback signals” would be important or how you’re defining value and I feel we’d be talking at cross-purposes. I was working off the assumption that it’s a self-evident truth to anyone who’s been in paid employment that much of their time is wasted… but apparently this truth wasn’t as obvious as I’d first thought!

            If someone is deciding to use a UBI to stay at home and organise their time autonomously, then surely they’re finding that use of their time more valuable than if they were in paid employment?

          • TracyW

            Yes – if you have no idea why I think feedback is important then we are indeed working off very different frameworks of understanding. And I’m also stumped as how to communicate with someone who doesn’t think feedback is important. How did you learn to write English without feedback?

            I pointed out some reasons why it can be profitable for a business for some time to be wasted in employment.

            As for the person organising their time autonomously on the back of a ubi, they may think it more useful given a ubi, but I doubt that the people paying the ubi think the same. If the ubi payers did, they’d’ve hired the person to do that job without the ubi.

          • TracyW

            I agree that we are working off very different frameworks. I’m amazed that anyone would think that feedback signals wouldn’t be important.

            I don’t define value, I think value is inherently subjective (eg is a peanut a nutritious tasty snack or life-threatening?). Above you switched terminology from “valuable” to “useful”, which is a bit more objective a word, and I pointed out that many valuable things aren’t useful.

            It may be that much of the time anyone spends in paid employment is wasted from their point of view, but that doesn’t mean that time isn’t valuable, I gave some explicit examples of how wasted time can still be valuable to the person paying for that time.

            “If someone is deciding to use a UBI to stay at home and organise their time autonomously, then surely they’re finding that use of their time more valuable than if they were in paid employment?”

            Yes, but the people paying the UBI are presumably finding that use of the UBI-recipients’ time less valuable than if the recipient were in paid employment. Otherwise they’d be paying the UBI-recipient to organise their time autonomously anyway, without the UBI.

    • Jessica Flanigan

      This is a good distinction. As a thought experiment, imagine instead of a dole a company that just for its own reasons decided to pay people a monthly check to do whatever they wanted. Would this be a terrible social blight and a serious harm to the person? Why would the fact that a private company pays someone to do X suddenly render X the kind of thing that develops one’s capacities?

      • Joey Jones

        Something like that thought experiment already takes place. In any typical office job people are paid to spend much of their time surfing the web, chatting to people and going to make cups of coffee— things they’d be doing if they weren’t working.

        Furthermore, workplace boredom and disatisfaction is a common phenomena but isn’t typically seen as a social blight (though maybe it should be).

        • Sean II


          In any big corporation, university, government bureau, etc, you’ll meet some people from whom little is expected and even less produced.

          Those people are nearly always the most miserable sacks of shit in the office. Behind their backs people say things like: “I don’t get why Barb’s so crabby all the time. She hasn’t had to do shit since they invented Excel!”

          Indeed, as a consultant you learn a rule of thumb which says the biggest complainers in a given unit are usually the least busy, while for some reason the truly busy seldom feel a need to bitch about how busy they are.

          Jessica’s theory predicts the opposite of that. She’s wrong.

          • Joey Jones

            I’m not sure what your argument here is. Understandably, those who have little work to do while their time is constrained by having to turn up and look busy are going to be unhappier than those who are more engaged with what they’re doing. If they paid to be unemployed they’d be able to organise their own time and activities rather than being forced by their role to go through the motions of being a productive employee.

      • TracyW

        Well “terrible” seems too strong a language but I’d expect the results to be about the same. Apart from that the beneficiaries of this company would be dependent on the company keeping going with that decision so you’d see all the negative impacts of dancing on the rich relative explored in 19th century fiction.

      • Sean II

        “Why would the fact that a private company pays someone to do X suddenly render X the kind of thing that develops one’s capacities?”

        It’s not the fact of being paid by a private company that makes the difference. It’s just that people are not entirely stupid, and they can tell when the money they’re receiving is a token of value or pity.

        Have you seen the show Silicon Valley? There’s an amusing little subplot about a bunch of guys who work at a Google-like tech giant under do-nothing contracts. The gist is that they were each hired as part of some industrial espionage scheme, but lack any substantial talents beyond the secrets they betrayed on day one. As a result, the company expects nothing from them but to stay out of the way.

        The show – which I assure you has no libertarian axe to grind – quite correctly depicts this as a humiliating condition, which leaves its victims cut off from the drama and action of life.

        Now why do you suppose that is? Why would the show writers make that choice? Why would the audience buy it?

        Answer: because that subplot taps into a widely shared intuition that productive activity is an important part of life, and that paid work is the surest marker we have for productive activity.

        That’s why it’s in the story, that’s why people find it to be a believable element.

  • Duarte

    Working vs. not working cannot be neutral options. Having to work is not some sort of capitalist imposition — it’s inherent to the nature of existence, and the nature of all life that we know about. All organisms have to expend energy to secure resources to survive and mate — nature doesn’t make anything else.

    A lot of this is empirical — psychology research is needed to find out what not working does to people. There’s no point in having strong views about such things if you don’t know, if there isn’t a clear answer in empirical work.

    One big reason to oppose a UBI is that it dramatically increases the amount of taxes people have to pay. We can imagine different scenarios for restrained government, scenarios that don’t require an income tax. A clean sales tax would do it, say 5-6%. A clean property tax would do it. But to have a UBI changes the game. Now you’re talking a large VAT tax or an income tax. And we should never, ever be talking about an income tax.

    Another reason to oppose the UBI is ~to find out~. We’re suffering from a major data deficit. We don’t don’t know exactly what a society would be like if we didn’t have this giant government with enormous taxation and regulatory power, and a welfare state. I think BHL often overlook how different an economy would be without income taxes or predatory regulation. You can’t just assume it’s going to be like what we have now. There are models that show our economy would be twice it’s current size if taxes were merely 10% lower, or major effects of eliminating the corporate income tax alone. Singapore is already richer than the US per cap, and they still have an income tax (albeit, a low and flat one, with no tax on capital gains, interest, or dividends.)

    We haven’t had the change to find out what a society could do without a welfare state, income tax, meddlesome government, etc. We should probably find out what we can achieve under those conditions, before we even talk about a UBI. It’s a terrible mistake to just start from status quo assumptions.

  • :(

    I can’t work because no one will hire me. So you all have to pay for their prejudice.

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