Opinion; The USBIG Blog, edited by Michael A. Lewis

Basic income and the ‘job ethic’

Written by: Michael A. Lewis

I was recently listening to a talk show on public radio. The first segment was about President Trump’s tax proposals. It included a debate between a supporter of Trump’s plan and an opponent of it. The supporter is associated with the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Her conclusion was that Trump’s proposed tax cuts would be great because they would lead to more economic growth and, therefore, more jobs. This is, of course, the supply-side/trickle-down economics reasoning, which could be a subject of debate itself.

A later segment on the talk show focused on New York City’s attempt to persuade Amazon to set up its headquarters in the city. For those who may not be aware, New York City’s mayor is widely considered to be politically progressive. If you are more familiar with European politics, you can think of him as something like a Social Democrat. He did not appear on the radio program, but one of his deputies did. The deputy said a primary reason the city wants to attract Amazon is that such a move would generate a lot of jobs.

Thus, there was a representative of a progressive mayor and a conservative, both of whom argued for two very different proposals on the same basis — jobs. This is not that unusual. The U.S. political Right and Left disagree on plenty: tax cuts, the proper role of the federal government, how best to improve U.S. schools, what the U.S. Constitution says about the right to own a gun, and a host of other issues. But both sides can always be counted on to agree that whether someone has a job or not is an issue of utmost importance.

Conservatives may argue that the best way to generate jobs is for the government to get out of the way and let businesses “do their thing.” Progressives may counter that the private sector will never create enough jobs for all those who desire one, and that the only way to assure people can find work is for the government to guarantee a right to work, even if it must do the hiring. But for both sides of the U.S. political spectrum, jobs are what matters.

It makes sense that both the Right and Left would be so focused on jobs. The main source of many, if not most, incomes in the U.S. is a wage or salary. For many people, if they lost their job, it would not be long before things became dire for them. For many of those currently without jobs, things are already quite dire. It is in the nature of capitalism for most of us to toil away as “wage slaves” as the Marxists define it. But it seems that over time, this economic necessity has developed into something many people call the work ethic, but which I have come to think might better be called the job ethic. The job ethic is the culture which develops when what we have to do to survive becomes not just a source of income but also one of social recognition.

In her book Justice and the Politics of Difference, the late philosopher Iris Marion Young has an essay on the definition of “oppression.” That essay is called The Five Faces of Oppression, and one of those “faces” is marginalization. Marginalization is what happens to the involuntarily unemployed. Obviously, those faced with this situation have a serious financial problem, given that they are living within a system which requires them to have money to meet their needs. But, according to Young, this is not the main reason involuntary unemployment is oppressive. The main reason is that those who are unemployed lack something which grants them access to being recognized and esteemed by their fellow citizens/residents — a job. It is this lack of a job which makes the unemployed feel cast aside and marginalized. The fact that someone is not willing to hire them results in their feeling socially worthless.

Being a philosopher/political theorist, Young does not support her argument with figures and statistics. But I think she may be onto something. A number of opponents of basic income seem to think so, too. Anyone who has followed the basic income debate has heard the argument that basic income is imprudent public policy because it would result in less work. Less work would mean people would be less inclined to engage in an activity which provides them not just with income, but also with meaning and social recognition. What these individuals are really saying is that basic income is bad social policy because it would result in fewer people having to obtain meaning and social recognition from what they have to do to “put food on the table.”

In the past, I have questioned whether basic income would have this effect. But I’m also inclined to wonder: So what if it does?  As important as making a living is, humans do a lot of other things besides sell their labor. They spend time with children, spouses, and friends, they enjoy hobbies of various kinds, they engage in pursuits of higher learning, they become involved in civic pursuits to make the world a better place, and a host of other things. Can’t at least some of these things be sources of social recognition, as well? As long as capitalism and tasks that cannot be completed by machines exist, there will be a need for humans to sell their labor. But if a basic income freed some of us up to spend more time doing other things which provide us with social recognition, would that really be so bad?

About the author: 

Michael A. Lewis is a social worker and sociologist by training whose areas of interest are public policy and quantitative methods. He’s also a co-founder of USBIG and has written a number of articles, book chapters, and other pieces on the basic income, including the co-edited work The Ethics and Economics of the Basic Income Guarantee. Lewis is on the faculties of the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and the Graduate and University Center of the City University of New York.

About Michael Lewis

Michael Lewis has written 12 articles.

The views expressed in this Op-Ed piece are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of Basic Income News or BIEN. BIEN and Basic Income News do not endorse any particular policy, but Basic Income News welcomes discussion from all points of view in its Op-Ed section.


  • P K Jee

    Shelf esteem and recognition is not derived from low grade jobs.What kind of self esteem one gets by digging a drain or by washing some one’s cloths? Those talking of jobs as a meaning to life ignore workers in the lower rungs.
    The poor man is always conveniently forgotten !

  • Yeba

    Really? „As important as making a living is, humans do a lot of other things besides sell their labor. They spend time with children, spouses, and friends, they enjoy hobbies of various kinds,”

    Are you suggesting that the social recognition of you (you use „we”, fine with me! ) and the rest of lowest members of the society (as to knowledge, skills and willingness to work) is the ultimate goal of the society?
    Why industrious people should care for your social recognition? Are you suggesting some other more valuable workers at all levels up to researchers to do less of the other things: less time with children and spouses and friends (although they supposedly have more educational things to comunicate) and less hobbies of even more various and smarter kinds, just to pay your „social recognition”?
    More time with kids noticing how little you work and how comparatively well you live from other/s people money will definitely help their education.

    • Michael L.

      I think I know what you’re getting at so I’m going to try to paraphrase it; you can let me know if I’ve gotten it wrong. Your objection is that it’s unfair to ask those with more knowledge, skills, and willingness to work to subsidize the “lowest members of society”—that is, those with less knowledge, skills, and willingness to work. And you’re worried that I’m promoting such injustice in my post.

      Let me start by saying that the main point of the post was to raise a question: is the sale of labor, largely in order to feed ourselves and our families, the only way we (by which I mean people in general) can attain social recognition? And by “social recognition” I mean, roughly, being regarded by others as making a social contribution of some kind.

      For example, someone raising their own children are helping to raise the future of society. If we regard the preservation of society as something of value, can child rearing be a source of social recognition?

      Someone caring for a sick partner, friend, or parent may be regarded as making a social contribution too. Theirs may not be “caring for the future of the society.” They may simply be caring for those no longer able to care for themselves, at least not without help. If we think caring for those no longer able to care for themselves, instead of letting them die in the streets or wherever, is a social contribution, then, perhaps, those engaged in such care work, may receive social recognition from that.

      Or someone might be a musician or another kind of artist. They may perform for free, whatever “perform” may mean, given the type of art they do. But there still may be an audience for their “work,” not their “labor,” as in time spent doing something in return for a wage, but “work,” as in doing something others regard as a social contribution of some kind.

      The point of these examples, as well as the original post, is to raise the issue of whether selling labor in return for a wage is the only way people can make social contributions and, thereby, receive social recognition. If not and people can make contributions in other ways, maybe providing them with a basic income to help facilitate such non-market contributions is justified. Admittedly, this way of seeing things may only justify what some have called a participation income or participation grant. In principle, I support what might be called a “pure basic income” meaning one where there would be no labor or work conditions tied to receiving it. I have my reasons, but won’t go into them here because that isn’t my point. What I’m mainly trying to do is say, to those who worry about a basic income causing people to work less and, therefore, make fewer social contributions, that if what constitutes a “social contribution” is considered more broadly, a basic income may not result in a social contribution decline at all. Hopefully, by now the point of the original post is clear.

      Your comments, though, raised some other thoughts. You seem to think that the more knowledge and skills people have and the more willing they are to work, the “higher” they are in society. This seems to be the view behind your phrase “lowest members of society.” So I have a question for you. Consider two people, Angel and Buffy.

      Angel sells his labor to a factory which makes cigarettes, a good which public health researchers around the world seem to think is a major cause of lung cancer. Buffy doesn’t sell her labor at all but stays home to care for her two children and elderly mother. Which of these two is higher in your notion of the social hierarchy? I don’t typically try to rank people the way do. But, giving it a try, it isn’t obvious to me that, simply because he sells his labor for a wage, Angel is the “higher” member.

  • Yeba

    Thank you for your answer. I’ll star with the end, as a proper engineer 🙂
    1. How to call briefly a person who did not like to lear and did not take the trouble to do what he didin’t like, did not acquire a sufficent set of useful skills, did not find a job on his taste and now simply sits in front of a tv waiting for a monthly check because a legislation too permissive makes it possible? The null-contribution member of the society? The consumer-of-other-people contributions? The “lowest members”… seemed to reflect exactly what I mean. This kind of man may marry the same kind of woman and the society provides for their children as well !! Now, my idea is that hunger is a good motivator. He will have to choose between starvation and some kind of trade with his time, his workforce and his nerves. I would let that go to the end, for the sake of pedagogical example. Some go to prison and thus back to the status of consumer, I would make prison bitterer as well 🙂

    As to Angel and Buffy: let people decide for themselves whether to smoke or not, they are of age! I don’t see any ethical dilemma. Buffy made a humanely choice as long as she is not pressing the social system requiring day nursery for free because she is unemployed or an equally free place in a center for her mother. Now this type of person has a full time job in which she is the best (normally nobody else could take better care) with no remuneration. Yes, this person should qualify for a basic income and close monitoring.
    I would not rank between them at all. They don’t long for my or anybody’s recognition either, so everybody is fine.

    2. Are you old enough to remember the times when there was a work division and (for biological reasons) there were women who chose to make a social contribution in the wider sense – raise children, care for olders – within a family? On a workforce market with lesser supply, the workforce got comparatively better paid and settled these issues within a social cell. (I don’t care at all for “the àrtist performing for free”, I am not encouraging fancies). Now, in these modern times at the point of no return, this choice is more and more obsolete. The basic universal income is targeting IN FACT not people in search of a choice. Just people who are unable&unwilling to find a job, but, for most of the time, able to find a pub. Since they have no discipline themselves they are hardly fit to raise socially acceptable children etc. They should be sent to find a job on a free market, insert themselves socially (wake up early, wash, watch the language etc.) and learn how the buck is made. In short, my opinion is that the theory doesn’t match the reality of these receivers.

  • Steve Richardson

    Good post, Michael! There is a stigma attached to unemployment in the U.S. that adds insult to injury and makes it difficult to have productive conversations about welfare policy. I wrote an essay on this subject (“Work and Ethics” at https://medium.com/@stevenoenerichardson/work-and-ethics-f114d71d2f86) and just a few days ago posted a suggested alternative to the GOP tax reform proposal (https://medium.com/@stevenoenerichardson/real-tax-reform-quit-taxing-work-ea4ac06dea55) that may be of interest.

  • Michae L.


    Thanks and I’ll take a look at your pieces.

  • Michael L.


    Thanks and I’ll take a look at your pieces.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.