Last Sunday’s Grand Rapids Press ran a story on pilot programs in the United States and elsewhere to provide every citizen with a “universal basic income.” This “income” isn’t tied to any actual work, just a lump sum provided to each household to provide for basic needs. What’s driving this movement? The automation revolution.
This topic is an intersection of three topics which interest me: faith, engineering, and politics: faith, because work is a component of our spiritual lives, engineering because technology drives automation, and politics, because we’ll need to decide collectively on what to do about this revolution.
The Increasing Trend Toward Automation
In my (first/second/other) career I’m an engineer. My specialty has been primarily in testing and verification, though my primary job right now is as a project manager. One of my primary goals in testing has been to increase the amount of automation that we do. Automation reduces costs, allows us to perform testing more frequently (which could increase quality), and reduces the number of human errors leading to rework. From a business perspective, it makes a lot of sense. But the consequence of this automation is that if you have a machine to do the work, you don’t need an employee to do that work. In a perfect world, this frees those engineers up for more interesting and productive work. But, we don’t live in a perfect world.
The trend toward automation has been going for a while, primarily in manufacturing. But it’s very prevalent in engineering as well, and plenty of other fields. It’s not just manual labor that’s being automated, but mental work as well (like the kind that I work on) and service jobs as well. (I’ve even read articles on “empathetic” machines which could take over certain caring professions!) Most economists that I’ve read on this topic see workforce automation increasing at an accelerated pace. We’re truly in the middle of a revolution.
There’s a long history of technology transforming labor and economy. Each time it seems to spell widespread unemployment, but after an adjustment period, people find work in a new field. There are inevitably winners and losers, but on the whole wealth increases. It’s hard to tell what the future would bring, and I would be skeptical of anyone who says they know what will happen. Yet, it’s worth considering some possibilities.
I see two possible dystopias. In one, the extreme capitalist version, the “owners” control all the production without the need for workers. Workers, having been completely displaced, find no way to make any money. This leads to extreme wealth inequality, and thus probably to violence.
In the other one, the means of production moves to the government, which provides a “universal basic income.” Nobody has to work, but still has all of their needs provided for them. Maybe this sounds like a utopia to you, but it doesn’t to me. First, there’s the fairly obvious issue of the government having essentially complete control over people’s lives. They don’t like your behavior? They cut off your “universal” basic income and you have no recourse. I don’t trust the government to act fairly or virtuously, especially one with this much power. Do you?
Built To Work
Just as profoundly, though, is the question of what effect not having to work would do to us, as persons. We’re built to work. We’re built to produce. God gave us dominion over nature, to work the Garden, and to build culture and civilization. The curse wasn’t the start of the working man, but his corruption. Work became toil after the Fall, but there was still work before it.
What happens if we don’t have to work? What happens if we cease to be producers? What happens if we’re nothing but consumers? I don’t think it’s a pretty picture. That’s why I call this vision a dystopia.
Heaven on Earth?
Could it be a utopia? On the New Heaven and the New Earth (literal utopia), I suspect that we’ll have work without toil. No one will need to work, and yet the process of culture and civilization will continue. Nobody will be driven by greed or fear (major drivers of our current economic system), yet we’ll all be producers. Can we bring “heaven on earth” now by automating all our labor?
The problem with this line of logic is that it ignores the sin nature. The genius of the capitalist system (with all its flaws) is that it’s able to harness our self-interest and turn it into wealth. And, in a free system, it’s able to provide opportunity for wealth building for all. Other systems have assumed better of our natures, and failed miserably.
What if we find ourselves there?
I really have no idea if either of these possibilities is in our future. But, if it were, how should Christians respond? Here’s the main thing: Even if work isn’t necessary, Christians should still endeavor to work. Why? First, work is core to our “personness.” God has made us to be creators and producers, not just consumers. Second, work is service. Even if you’re not in the “service” industry, your work is useful to somebody (your paycheck is proof of that). Continuing to work would mean continuing to serve. It’s a tangible way we love our neighbors.
I don’t know what will happen, or when. But we can begin now embracing work as service and as calling, not just as a means to a paycheck.
Recommended for Further Reading
Related blog: How do I Choose a Job?