In a commencement speech at Harvard last week, the founder of Facebook called for the creation of “a new social contract.” “We should have a society that measures progress not by economic metrics like GDP but by how many of us have a role we find meaningful. We should explore ideas like universal basic income to make sure everyone has a cushion to try new ideas,” Zuckerberg said. Zuckerberg noted that, because he personally had a safety net to fall back on, he had the confidence to try projects like Facebook, and he thinks everyone should have the same financial wherewithal.
For some, like Zuckerberg, universal basic income has become the Great White Whale. It’s not fair, they think, that only people who come from families that have financial resources can experiment in pursuit of their dreams. Proponents of UBI believe that, if only everyone had guaranteed funding irrespective of whether they worked or not, all people would have the freedom to follow their dreams, invent new things, and experience personal fulfillment. Why, the outpouring of creativity and innovation would promote the flourishing of art, literature, music, technological development, and human interaction that undoubtedly would lead to a new Renaissance!
Or, people who got the money would sit around in their place of residence all day, watching TV and enjoying the recreational drug or adult beverage of their choice.
Look, who am I to disagree with Mark Zuckerberg? But let’s lay aside the gnarly issue of how we could possibly pay for a basic stipend sufficient for every American to live on without working. (Taxpayers, hang on to your wallets!) My experience teaches that having a job is a good thing. Working brings structure to lives. It allows people to become self-sufficient and to learn the value of a dollar. It promotes the development of responsibility, punctuality, responsiveness, planning, and other positive personal attributes. And the labor of every worker also helps to fund things like national defense, Social Security, health care, national parks, and a bunch of other things that might not be as amply supported if the funds are going to pay basic living expenses for a bunch of people who are happily contemplating their navels. And, if you really think your job sucks, maybe that will motivate you to go out on your own, become an entrepreneur, and follow your dream with the benefit of the real-life experience you’ve acquired.
And don’t call it “universal basic income,” either. In my book, “income” should be reserved for something that you earn, through work or investment, not something that is handed to you.
So let me respectfully disagree with Mr. Zuckerberg. If he wants to really help to create a “new social contract,” let him and the other mega-tycoons enter into some actual contracts — with employees working for the new ventures that Zuckerberg and the other filthy rich are in a position to establish and fund with their wealth. Let’s help more people learn the value of actual work.