Basic Income Faculty Journal Series Posted on Thursday, August 16, 2018

Work and Basic Income: A Decommodification Perspective

Kate McFarland

Kate McFarland Former Editor of Basic Income News; Ph.D., Philosophy, Ohio State University

The decoupling of income from work can liberate work from the perverse influence of monetary incentives. The goal of this article, however, is not to defend the thesis that monetary incentives are perverse or that they can and should be detached from work.

The immediate objective of this article is to situate this position in logical space, which will be approached by first delineating some types of arguments for universal basic income (UBI) that it is not. In doing so, this article also aims to inspire creative reevaluation of the claim that UBI undermines the value of work.

Supporters of UBI vary widely in both normative assumptions about the value of work and empirical predictions about its future. The diverse range of arguments for UBI reflects many different and sometimes incompatible views, as seen in the following (non-exhaustive) chart:


Full employment will not be attainable in the future (e.g. due to automation).Full employment will continue to be attainable in the future.
Full employment is desirable for society (if possible).“In the absence of sufficient job opportunities, UBI is necessary to provide an adequate standard of living for all.”

“Means-tested programs impede the goal of full employment; they disincentivize job-seeking as recipients fear losing their benefits. UBI avoids this.”

“UBI increases the bargaining power of workers; this will force employers to offer higher wages, attracting more workers to jobs.”

“UBI would spur business growth, and thus job creation, by stimulating demand and reducing the risk of entrepreneurship.”

Full employment is not necessarily desirable for society.“UBI allows society to embrace the potential for automation to liberate us from needless toil.”

“The goal of full employment promotes overwork and devalues leisure; UBI permits less work and better work-life balance.”

“The goal of full employment neglects the importance of unpaid work; UBI subsidizes the latter.”


When one dismisses UBI as “giving up” on the possibility of full employment, as did former presidential economic advisor Jason Furman (and more recently former Vice President Joe Biden), one speaks as though all UBI supporters occupied the upper-left quadrant. Some well-known contemporary supporters, including Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk and former SEIU president Andrew Stern, have argued from this perspective. Generally speaking, however, UBI does not imply a lost hope for full employment.

For one, many arguments for UBI do not rest on the assumption that fewer jobs will be available in the future. Contrarily, some even presuppose that employment opportunities will continue to be widespread. Take the government of Finland’s ongoing experimental trial of UBI: describing UBI as a policy intended to “free up time and resources for other activities such as working or seeking employment,” the Finnish researchers are focused the hypothesis that participants in the trial (all individuals who were unemployed at the start of the experiment) will be more likely to take jobs than beneficiaries of the nation’s existing unemployment insurance. As many advocates have suggested, UBI could have such a result by eliminating the poverty trap of means-tested benefits.

Meanwhile, other proponents of UBI celebrate the potential for technological unemployment, rejecting the normative premise that a society staked on full employment is desirable. Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams’s post-work manifesto Inventing the Future calls for UBI and “full automation” as complementary reforms. During their internationally broadcast 2016 referendum campaign, Swiss UBI activists encouraged spectators to contemplate what they we would do if their incomes were guaranteed as marching robots pledged to work so that humans would no longer need to.

My primary interest, however, is the lower-right quadrant, where one finds perspectives that question the inherent value of full employment, yet without envisioning fully automated luxury communism or other techno-utopias. It is unnecessary to look ahead to a post-work future to imagine a different role of work in society; one might as easily look backwards, to hunter-gatherers, medieval peasants, ancient Greek aristocrats and their ideal of schole (described in Josef Pieper’s Leisure: The Basis of Culture), or Max Weber’s piece-rate laborer who wanted “simply to live as he is accustomed to live and to earn as much as is necessary for that purpose.”

We can further subdivide logical space within this last quadrant. First, some critics of the goal of full employment are skeptical of the virtuousness of “a hard day’s work” and, correspondingly, take it as a good thing if UBI were to allow individuals to work less and enjoy better work-life balance. But  one can affirm a version of the “work ethic” while nonetheless critiquing the value of employment; in this case, one might reject the nobility of paid work without denying the virtue of work generally.

The last distinction is between approaches of those who maintain that work is virtuous (or don’t deny that it is) but that being paid does not render work more important or meritorious. One possible starting point is to note that, as matter of fact, work that happens to be paid is not always more valuable or important than work that happens to be unpaid, without commitment to the thesis that payment is inherently degrading or corrosive. One might, for instance, cite work historically done by women, such as child-rearing, care-giving, and housework. Volunteers and unpaid interns also contribute to society despite not contributing to GDP. Although such points make frequent appearances in pro-UBI discourse, it is often unclear whether the blame falls merely on the mechanism for assigning value (capitalist labor markets) rather than the unit of in which value of work is thought to be expressed (wages). This leaves open the question of why we ought to adopt UBI to value unpaid work instead of simply introducing wages for unpaid work.

In contrast, the suggested approach is to deny that payment for work is benign. UBI does not devalue work; what does devalue work is the belief that wages and salaries ought to be the expression of this value. The latter assumption reduces work to an instrumental means of satisfying materialistic desires, rather than an end in itself, or a means to realize a greater social good.

It already quite common, in fact, to see monetization as an instrument of degradation or corruption in some contexts. We refuse money from friends for whom we have paid a favor. We’d find it unthinkable to demand payment from a loved one after cooking their favorite meal for their birthday. The introduction of financial rewards into interpersonal exchanges can be devastating, undermining the perceived closeness of a relationship. Outside of our personal relationship, we worry that the monetary incentives corrupt the integrity of politicians, the accuracy of scientific research, and the authenticity of art. What call the things love most not ‘pricey’ but ‘priceless’.

Psychologists and economists have studied the “crowding out” of motivation that can occur when materialistic rewards are introduced for work that individuals otherwise perform voluntarily. Preschool children lose intrinsic interest in creating art after they become accustomed to receiving “payment” for their output. Children read shorter books when offered money for reading or practice easier pieces when offered gold stars for completing music practice session. Monetizing a passion or hobby can transform turn our focus and interest from the intrinsic gratification of personal challenge and learning to the question of “How can I most efficiency attain the maximum payoff?” The author might even have had a brush with the phenomenon after receiving pay for erstwhile volunteer work for Basic Income News. What is perhaps even more socially damaging, monetizing pro-social work, such as volunteering or donating blood, may displace the pre-existing altruistic motivation to contribute to the good of others.

It would be beside the point to debate the extent to which motivational crowding actually reduces productivity. Productivity is not our only goal as individuals and societies, nor should it be our primary one. The needless displacement of any amount of intrinsic, social, or altruistic motivation by materialism and self-interest is a perverse result in itself. When market norms supplant social norms, our interest and focus may shift from the good of others to individual material gain. We should want to live in a society in which individuals work not “for the money” but for the pleasure and fulfillment of learning, creating, growing, and bringing health and happiness to others. By detaching some portion of income from work, UBI could be one step in this direction.




Kate McFarland is a philosopher of language (PhD 2015, The Ohio State University) who left academia to pursue life outside of traditional job structures as a freelance writer and researcher.
She has served on the boards of the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN) and US Basic Income Guarantee (USBIG) Inc. Her volunteer work for BIEN’s news service, Basic Income News, earned her a year-long grant from the Economic Security Project for 2017.