What makes a meaningful life? It’s a big question to bite off and it doesn’t have a definite answer. If I were to ask you what the purpose of your life is, you might say it’s to raise a family, make the world a better place, or spend time doing the things you love. I suspect few of us would say that our main function on earth is to work. So why is it, then, that we place such an emphasis on our jobs?
A lot of the work that we do isn’t intrinsically valuable to us, but instead benefits us indirectly via the money and security it offers. For me, work certainly adds meaning to my life, but not so much as volunteering or spending time with my family. What we do for work will inevitably benefit someone else eventually- the free market after all does provide a lot of the goods and services we require to maintain our standard of living. However, the work we do in the private sector normally doesn’t have the direct impact on others that we seek for fulfillment. While it would be great if we could just volunteer all the time, we also have rent to pay and food to buy, so work we must.
If we really get as much satisfaction as we claim from doing non-income earning work, you’d think we would spend more time on it. It would make sense for me to reduce the number of hours I work as much as possible and instead invest my energy into activities that I receive more fulfillment from. I don’t do this though because my need for financial security and a high standard of living is greater than my desire to do activities like volunteering. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs describes how until we’ve fulfilled our basic survival requirements such as physiological and safety needs, we won’t focus on our psychological or self-fulfillment needs. Simply, until I know I have my rent paid and food on the table, I’m not going to be very concerned about activities that contribute to my growth and happiness. Even if those self-fulfillment needs are the ones that lead to a fulfilling life, survival will always come first.
So what would happen if our basic needs were met? How would our lives be different if we didn’t have to worry about where our next meal was coming from or how we were going to pay rent? Freedom from the pressure of survival would mean the ability to select jobs that we actually want to do. Instead of just accepting whichever job offer came first or with the highest salary, we could take jobs that we truly enjoy doing, even if it meant making less money. This type of security could also mean working fewer hours and having more time for activities outside of work. And on top of the personal benefits we’d receive from our basic needs being met, it would also lead to an increase of welfare beyond that which some type of need-meeting program would offer. Of course we’d all benefit from not having to live paycheck to paycheck, but in addition, that extra time we have to do activities we love has a good chance of benefiting those around us. Whether we use our free time to volunteer or spend time in nature or with family, these activities create positive externalities to those around us.
Of course it would be great if no one had to work. My life would be a lot simpler if I had the freedom to spend all my time doing the things I love the most. But I don’t because of financial pressure. Enter the Universal Basic Income. The concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) is simple enough- give everyone money with no strings attached. Arguments for why we need a UBI are far and wide- it simplifies welfare, it provides a more robust social safety net, and it eliminates the stigma of receiving welfare in the first place (to name a few). On top of this, a UBI prepares our economy for a transitioning job market in the face of automation. If a UBI gives us the opportunity to live more meaningful, service-based lives, why haven’t we implemented it yet?
At the end of the day, UBI’s greatest roadblock is the cost of implementation. To give every adult citizen in the US (of which there are around 248 million) a UBI of $12,000 a year would run a bill of nearly $3 trillion. This is around 75% of the entire federal budget for 2018. When we look at the current budget, a big chunk of spending goes towards welfare. By replacing the current welfare system with a UBI, we can start to reduce the cost of such a program, but this still leaves a sizeable sum of money that would need to be brought in. If we were to implement a low-rate consumption tax across all transactions in the economy, we could easily bring in the amount necessary for a UBI. Check out our proposal here for more details on how to fund a UBI.
If we want to encourage people to live meaningful lives, they need to have enough time to do those activities that make their lives meaningful. Even though we say that service and time with family are the types of activities that bring us the most fulfillment, we end up spending most of our lives working. The financial pressure that our standard of living puts on us creates a vicious cycle wherein material things indicate happiness, but in order to afford these things, we must spend our time doing activities that bring us little happiness at all. Finding a solution to this cyclical issue within the confines of our current welfare state seems futile to me. A UBI provides both the support and freedom for us to pursue the things that give our lives meaning.