Human Value and the Puritan Work Ethic

What makes a human life valuable?

That’s a huge question, obviously, and not one that’s going to be settled in a magazine column. I just want to examine a small piece of it. I want to examine a particular assumption of US culture: the idea that what makes us valuable is money and work.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of a guaranteed basic income. The notion is that instead of having a complicated patchwork of support programs (Social Security, disability, unemployment, and so on), everyone would just get a monthly check, enough to cover basic living expenses. Everyone. For most of us, our taxes would go up by about the same amount, and it would be a wash. Poorer people would have a net gain, while wealthier people would get a tax increase. Not necessarily a huge increase, though. The program would be partly paid for by dismantling the massive bureaucracy designed to administer support programs—and designed to throw up barriers to these programs, forcing people to jump through extensive and repeated hoops to get the support they’re entitled to.

This column isn’t intended to fully examine the economics of a guaranteed basic income (GBI). You can read the pros and cons elsewhere. I’m looking at a different question: Do people have a right to basic life needs, not as an exchange for work done, but simply because we exist? Are we valuable, simply because we are?

One of the most common objections to a GBI—indeed to any entitlement program—is the idea that people shouldn’t get money they haven’t worked for. Even if a program is cost-effective, even if it ultimately saves more than it spends (the way education and healthcare do), even if it benefits an entire society, many people won’t like it. They see it as unfair. For many, a society where everyone works who’s capable of it, where nobody gets anything for free, is itself an ideal.

It’s a false ideal, of course. Many of the people promoting this ideal also promote tax breaks and other advantages for the rich. Very few of them are against an inheritance tax or estate tax, even though that’s the essence of unearned income. And of course, to accept this ideal, you have to accept the patently ridiculous notion idea that our economy is fair. But that’s another rant. I’m asking a different question. What would it mean for a society to give basic support to everyone, simply because we exist?

Or, to put it more simply: Why are we valuable?

I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been taking something of a break. After the 2016 election, my mental health took a nosedive: over a year later, I’m exhausted from the constant work of recovery, and I’m only just beginning to feel like myself again. (Or something vaguely resembling myself, anyway.) I’m lucky: I can step back a bit, take a little time to work less and focus on other things. Of course, much of what I’m focusing on is also work: political activism, community organizing, art. And some of what I’m doing is long-term work: I’m reading a lot more, a necessary form of brain-feeding for any writer. It just isn’t work that immediately earns money.

But I’ve noticed that when I work less—or more accurately, when I do less paid work—I value myself less. I worry about whether I’m productive enough, useful enough, giving enough of myself. I size myself up more, compare myself unfavorably to other people, especially other writers. I get defensive about my choice to step back, even when nobody else is judging me. Even here in this column, I find myself justifying my decisions, explaining that I’m sick, explaining that what I’m doing should count as work.

Our current system is hard to let go of: not just politically, but emotionally. The Puritan work ethic—the idea that hard work is both proof of God’s favor and our chief way of earning it—is deeply baked into the culture of this country. I’m not the only one who internalizes it. And of course, money itself represents value. That’s literally what it does. This is an oversimplification, of course—huge treatises have been written on the nature of money—but among many other things, money is an abstract representation of what a society values, and how much we value it.

But it’s a crappy representation. The system is deeply skewed, and that skew is self-perpetuating. Among other things, rich people get to set the rules and make themselves richer. Work traditionally done by women and other marginalized people—housework, child care, community care, emotional labor—are undervalued at best and unvalued at worst. When you factor in the just-world fallacy (the human brain’s tendency to think the world is just and people get what they deserve), we get some nasty vicious circles: we devalue poor people because money represents value, and we assume that poor people deserve it.

I think this is one of the reasons I’m intrigued by the idea of a guaranteed basic income. What would it mean for a society to cover everyone’s basic needs, simply because we exist? What would a world be like if we valued people, not for our money, not for our ability to do paid work, but simply because human life has value?

I do think work is valuable. It’s one of the things that can make a life worthwhile. It’s just not the only thing. We’re valuable because we work, laugh, grieve, organize, volunteer, read, watch movies, play games, play with cats, argue, fight evil, make dinner, make a better world, and take care of each other. We’re valuable because we are a particular form of the physical universe, a form that’s conscious of itself and each other and the rest of the world. We’re valuable because we are.