Freedom from, Freedom for: Universal Basic Income and Catholic Social Teaching

By: Conor M. Kelly

September 1, 2020

Economic Justice and Universal Basic Income: Ethical and Religious Perspectives

The notion of a universal basic income, despite its increasing prevalence in mainstream conversations, remains a radical idea that quickly generates critical reactions. How would we ever pay for it? Do we really need to feed Mark Zuckerberg’s coffers even more? And so on.

In a Catholic context, there are no shortages of criticisms either. David Cloutier, a moral theologian teaching at the Catholic University of America, once described UBI as “well intentioned, but…an enormous mistake because it doesn’t display a preferential option for the poor.”

In my view, this is the most challenging indictment of UBI for any Catholic proponent, because there are few other principles in Catholic social teaching that capture the heart of the Gospel and lend a distinctly Catholic theological voice to public policy considerations so well. Nevertheless, this obstacle is not insurmountable, for its assumptions—that UBI would replace existing aid to those in poverty and that we could strengthen that aid without expanding national support to everyone—need not be the case, particularly given the evidence that means-tested programs do not reduce poverty as effectively as universally accessible ones. Or, as the Quaker activist and author of Viking Economics George Lakey observed, “Nobody has gotten rid of poverty through charity, philanthropy and welfare, whereas poverty can be abolished through universal services.”

I want, therefore, to acknowledge this criticism and highlight the need to take it seriously, because my own view as a theologian is that the Catholic tradition does not offer unambiguous support for UBI. To channel Thomas Aquinas, who maintained (in the context of the natural law) that a general principle “will be found to fail the more, according as we descend further into detail” (Summa Theologiae I-II.94.4), this is an issue that requires careful parsing as it plays out in practice. Some iterations will be far more consonant with Catholic social teaching than others.

At the same time, we must not rush to the opposite extreme. The Catholic tradition may not provide for an unequivocal promotion of UBI, but neither does it justify an outright condemnation. Having just outlined one of the most serious criticisms, I want to use the bulk of my response to explore some of the ways that UBI can reinforce one of the most fundamental goods in the Catholic moral tradition: human freedom.

When people think of freedom in the context of UBI, they generally conjure up a negative image of problematic freedoms from responsibility. To cite a common image, they fear people will be free from work and indulge in laziness, undermining economic prosperity for us all. From a Catholic perspective, there are even fears that this type of freedom from work will threaten Catholic social teaching’s promotion of the dignity of work as “a good thing for [one’s] humanity—because through work [one] not only transforms nature…but [one] also achieves fulfilment as a human being and indeed, in a sense, becomes ‘more a human being’” (Laborem Exercens, no. 9).

Certainly, this kind of freedom from work would be a possibility if UBI were in place, but I am not convinced it is as damaging as critics contend. In fact, I think UBI offers a form of freedom from that can actually serve the dignity of work.

I say this because UBI offers more than a generic freedom from work across the board; it actually represents a significant opportunity for more people to experience freedom from the structural constraints of an unequal economic system that gives employers almost unilateral power to set the conditions of employment. By giving workers a safety net, UBI can facilitate a more intentional discernment in the sphere of work, potentially allowing more people to select vocationally fulfilling work that serves their neighbor and the common good—just as Catholic social teaching would advocate.

Consider some of the early studies of UBI experiments recounted in Annie Lowery’s journalistic foray into the impact of UBI policies, Give People Money. A common data point in the studies is a reduction in parents’ working hours (especially mothers’ working hours). When viewed as part of a narrative that fears the effects of people’s freedom from work, this looks like a disheartening statistic that proves the worst. When one evaluates freedom from structural constraints, however, this begins to sound like a boon for families who would prefer to have more time at home with the kids if only they had the opportunity to do so.

Significantly, the Catholic theological tradition recognizes that caring for one’s family can be a form of work as well. Far from destroying the dignity of work, then, UBI can actually raise the dignity of the important work that often gets denigrated when society defines value exclusively on the basis of economic utility. The freedom from structural constraints can thus become freedom for even greater goods.

Beyond a richer vocational vision for work, UBI can also promote another “freedom for” when it provides freedom from the regnant values of utilitarian reductionism. In this case, it is freedom for leisure.

In my forthcoming book, The Fullness of Free Time (Georgetown University Press), I argue that leisure and recreation are positive theological goods. I note, however, that we are often frustrated in our pursuit of these goods by larger structural constraints, regularly leaving people resource rich and time poor, or time rich and resource poor. UBI offers a type of freedom from the constraints of this free time paradox, opening the path to the fullness of free time for more people. Insofar as this is a theological good, as Catholic social teaching has long insisted (see, for example, Mater et Magistra, nos. 248–253), expanding access to it is a morally laudable outcome.

Of course, these positive potentials do not make UBI the perfect policy solution. As I stated above, the devil really is in the details from a Catholic perspective. The fact that UBI can offer freedom from some of the most severe structural constraints in order to facilitate freedom for real theological goods, however, indicates that it is worth working through those details.

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