In the midst of the so-called Great Resignation, the far left is calling for the abolishment of all work. Leftist politicians and activists call for the government to step in and create a massive welfare state to eliminate the need for Americans to work at all.
Robert Rector, The Heritage Foundation’s senior research fellow for domestic policy studies, joins the podcast to explain that work is crucial for a functioning and flourishing society. The left’s proposals to replace work with government handouts, Rector says, can have only bad consequences.
“We’re now violating that contract when you [eliminate work],” Rector says. “Those who choose to work [will] have a double obligation to support themselves and their families and the families of those who choose not to work. Society will fall apart under that, and there’s no way of stopping it.”
We also cover these stories:
- President Biden gives his first press conference since November, taking questions for over an hour and a half.
- Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accuses Democrats of trying to divide the nation for their own political gain.
- Fearing an imminent attack on Ukraine by Russian forces, Secretary of State Antony Blinken lands in Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Listen to the podcast below or ready the lightly edited transcript.
Doug Blair: Our guest today is Robert Rector, senior research fellow for domestic policy studies at the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation. Robert, thank you so much for coming on.
Robert Rector: Well, thank you.
Blair: Excellent. So, I wanted to talk to you about work and the idea of work. There are increasing calls from many on the left to abolish the idea of work, to get rid of it entirely. And there’s this hugely popular internet forum that is against jobs as they are structured under capitalism and the state. So to start out with, why is work important?
Rector: Well, as far as I know, all societies, even hunting and gathering societies, do require self-support and work in order to function. They may not have a market exchange, but there’s nobody sitting around saying, “Hey, go find me some food and I’ll sit here.” Nothing works like that.
And work is fundamentally about self-support. If you think back traditionally, this would be someone building his own house, raising his own food, family making their own clothes, and so forth.
Now, in a market economy, we don’t do that anymore. But what we do is exchange our work for someone else’s work, who can do a particular thing more efficiently.
If you are working, you’re going to be able to actually exchange what you’re doing for like a pound of potatoes. If not, you’re actually not working, and the left likes to fudge that up. If I like to sing in the shower, I think I’m really good. But if I were to go around my hood and say, “Hey, I was really good in the shower this morning, you got 10 bucks?” I don’t think it would be that successful.
If I have something that is of value, I can exchange it for someone else’s work. My work has value, your work has value. We exchange it, we’re in a balance.
The left doesn’t like that, but really what the left is about is taking control of all the resources and then allocating them according to their own power in their own ideology. And removing work is just a part of making the state far much stronger in terms of controlling resources. But then, ironically, this actually sort of comes out of anarchism, which is about making the state smaller.
Blair: Sure. And that’s a really interesting point that you made, it’s coming out of anarchism. Is this something that started with anarchism or is there another political philosophy that kind of originates with this idea?
Rector: It comes in part from anarchism. It comes also in part from just the alienation from existing society that you find in the left, they’re just angry about everything, and so they’re angry about work.
But socialist societies, communist societies very much required work. You were forced to work in the Soviet Union to make a contribution. There was no toleration of free riders at all, and this is something.
And most anarchist societies have fallen apart over the free rider problem. When you go to an anarchist society, like a communal society—this existed historically—in most cases, what you end up with is, say, an abundance of essays and music performed in a shortage of turnips. And no one is cleaning the cesspool for some reason.
So when you want to do the formula from each according to their ability, according to their need, which is the anarchist one, well, exactly what determines who gets what and who gets to clean the cesspool is a big problem. And largely, they’ve never been able to resolve that at all.
But when you’re talking about removing work today, it’s really about building the welfare state, building the government. The government is going to collect all the resources and turn them over and control them.
And what you have with a UBI [universal basic income]-type system or anything like that, what you’re really saying is, “Look, you as a recipient are not required to do anything to support yourself. You can choose not to work. However, if you do choose to work, you have a double obligation. You’re going to support yourself and you’re going to support this person that chose not to work.” Now, virtually no one finds that fair or a good idea.
If you look at our society, if you ask the question, “Should an able-bodied adult who gets cash, food, housing, or medical care from the government be required to work, or at least prepare for work as a condition of receiving that aid?”, 90% of the public say “yes,” including about 90% of people who identify as Democrats.
Ironically, if you look on the extreme left of a philosophy with John Rawls, whose entire passion is to redistribute income, but Rawls had a surfer exemption. He said, “Look, if you just want to surf and you don’t want to do anything to support yourself, then you should not be a recipient of this government redistribution.”
And on the other end, we have [Friedrich] Hayek, the libertarian economist, who did accept some sort of welfare state transfer to support the less advantaged, but basically said, “We shouldn’t be paying people to gaze at their own navels,” which were hippies in his day.
Ironically, you have both extremes saying you can have redistribution, but it has to be redistribution with a requirement to take some steps to support yourself if you’re able to do so.
Blair: Sure. Now, I do want to talk about UBI a little bit later in this interview, but one of the things I’m curious about is what is the leftist argument that work is problematic? What are they saying is the issue with work?
Rector: Largely, I think they don’t advance that in practical terms. They just start by saying, “Oh my goodness, we have poverty. And the best way to eliminate poverty is just give people more stuff.”
There’s also a group here that I would call “big government libertarians” who’ve leaped into this. It seems like an irony, but they exist. And they try to pretend that giving people free stuff wouldn’t make them work less. But of course, all the evidence suggests the opposite of that, that you need to have an expectation and a requirement to say, “Look, if you need assistance, we’ll give it to you. But you have to take steps to support yourself.”
So on the extreme left, you have this, “We don’t want work,” but when you get like to Capitol Hill or something, they’re going to conceal that, they’re not going to make that self-evident. And I think it’s just an animus to society in general. Again, all societies, I’m not aware of any society where you get to say, “Oh, I don’t really want to support myself, you can support me.” It doesn’t seem like the basis for any sort of valid social contract. So there is a lot of pretense that work isn’t available.
A big one now is work is going to disappear. Automation is going to remove it all. Well, that’s just a convenience for people who wanted to abolish work in the first place. And it’s not really a valid excuse. That might actually happen at some point in the future, but the people that are harping on that had other reasons for seeking to circumvent work.
Blair: Now, we’re going through something, speaking of modern-day examples of these excuses as to not working, we’re going through something called the Great Resignation where workers across the country are leaving their jobs en masse. Is this Great Resignation a result of anti-work rhetoric coming from the left?
Rector: No, I think it’s a result of giving people a lot of money not to work during the COVID pandemic, where you were paying vast amounts and really paying people more in unemployment insurance than they can earn in the marketplace. And I think that that developed some bad habits and also developed, at least in the short term, a need not to work.
The old example of this that comes on the right was Milton Friedman’s idea of a guaranteed national income tax, which was a support payment without a work requirement.
And if you don’t remember history, you’re condemned to repeat it. After he advanced that, we actually had these very large, random assignment experiments in the ’70s and early ’80s called the negative income tax experiments.
And guess what? It found that when you gave families money not to work, they worked less. It’s amazing. I’m glad I can get paid to know stuff like that. And it’s a good gig. And they found significant reductions in work. But interestingly, these were short-term, random assignment experiments, they never lasted more than three years.
But we found that even 30, 40 years later, when you went back into the families that got these special payments that rewarded not working, that they’re working less even today. So they sort of inculcated a habit of working less. It’s not that they left the labor force entirely, but if they were between jobs, they stayed out longer, they worked less, and so forth. So not a good way and it’s obviously extremely costly to the taxpayer, but it’s also extremely harmful to the recipients.
The other impact that we saw with the negative income tax experiments was a decline in marriage. And I love Milton Friedman, but Milton Friedman didn’t know anything about welfare programs and thought they were extremely boring. He just said, “Well, we’ll just get rid of all this stuff. And we’ll have this really simple thing that I can draw on a chalkboard.”
Well, no, that’s probably not the way you want to go about this. You really need to know how these programs operate; what they reward, what they don’t reward; and how people in different classes interact with them.
Blair: Following up on that, I mean, let’s imagine that there is a big shift in how we are able to form our society. So like a “Star Trek” level, everything is provided for you. You have this technology that can just give you resources. Should there be a society without work or does work fulfill a different need than just sustainability?
Rector: Right. So part of the problem with the left-wing welfare state is because they want to attack capitalism, they want to attack traditional society. And so they make a big deal, a largely false deal about poverty and inequality and they use that to expand the state. But all of their thinking is almost entirely materialistic.
And the way I look at the welfare state, I use Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which everyone has apparently studied for 50 years as an undergraduate. And Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at the very bottom, the least important need is meeting these physical needs, right?
Well, that’s what the welfare state is all about, but right above that, you have a need for security, which comes from, in part, having capacity to support yourself. And right above that, you have a need that he called respect or achievement and that’s intimately linked to work. OK?
If you can’t support yourself or at least make a significant contribution, you don’t have to necessarily be self-sufficient, but a significant contribution to support yourself and your family, that’s immediately a sense of achievement. It gives you dignity and it’s immediately validated.
Because again, if you’re working, what you’re actually saying is, “I have something of enough value so that when I do it, you are willing to work in exchange for me.” And if you don’t have that, then you’re in my situation, singing in the bathroom and going around and saying, “Hey, please donate.”
And everybody instinctively understands that it’s very rewarding. And then also when you remove work, you severely undermine the family. And that’s the next order of Maslow’s needs, is family relationships, personal relationships.
And one of the things we know is that when you come into society and start making the breadwinner unnecessary, making the father unnecessary, making unnecessary for the mother to work, the family collapses. And that’s happening already all across advanced nations, where the lowest-income families, their marriage is largely eroded terribly.
If you look at the United States today, if you have a mother that only has a high school degree, 60% of those kids will be born out of wedlock. If the mother has a college degree, it’s 10%. So our society is dividing already into those that are not married or have low marriage levels. And then the upper class, where you basically have kids being raised by married, college-educated couples, those kids are hugely advantaged relative to the other.
Now, if you take work out of the thing entirely, then that’s going to even be a greater social polarization.
Blair: One of the things that we discussed a little bit earlier in this interview was the idea of UBI, or universal basic income. For our listeners who might not know what this is, what is this concept of UBI, or universal basic income?
Rector: Well, there are various versions of it, but the simplest version is that the government would tax people away, maybe with a value-added tax, and give everybody $10,000 a year. OK? Charles Murray has a version of this where I think it only goes to adults.
Now, some of these try to be frugal and they start out with the politically attractive idea of abolishing Social Security, Medicare—lots of votes for that in the House and Senate. But most of them don’t try to pay for themselves at all. It’s just, “We’re going to give people stuff and magically tax it.”
One thousand dollars per person for everybody, that’s about $1 in $6 in the economy. So it’s about close to 20% of the whole economy. You’d have to have a massive tax pay for that, but we are not going to talk about that too much if we’re promoting this idea.
The other thing to think about is clearly its incentive structure, it’s very important. And I’ve yet to meet a parent who’s raising a kid who would like to have the government come and tell their child, particularly the boys, “When you turn 18, we’re going to give you $10,000 a year for the rest of your life.”
What change is going to happen to him? That’s really going to improve that homework, isn’t it? And you’re really going to bribe people into very nonproductive, dissipated lives. And they’re going to turn around when they’re 40 and say, “What happened?”
We’ve already really hurt blue-collar young men by basically making it unnecessary for them to be breadwinners for their children. That basically rips the guts out of their lives, and they work less. That’s actually where the opioid crisis is focused, among men with a high school degree or less who are not married. OK? And who have no real role in our society because the state displaces them. Now we can displace everybody, basically, and it’s a horrible idea.
Blair: So can you expand a little bit more on like what these various ideas have looked like in the forms of, is this just an American thing or is this abroad? Where has this been tried?
Rector: It’s been tried in this form, the UBI form, here and there in various locations. It’s always local. It doesn’t seem to stick and they usually end. It’s more rhetorical.
And I would say the real danger is that we incrementally inch toward this rather than, oh, let’s have a 30%, 25% VAT tax and give everybody $10,000. I don’t think that’s going to be what happens. I think we’re going to incrementally do this.
So, for example, just this year in the Build Back Better bill, the Biden administration was proposing a cash grant of $300 a month for each child, no work requirement, that was the key to it. They didn’t care about tax. It’s not tax relief either, it’s a cash grant.
But getting rid of the existing work requirement out of the welfare system, which the left has always wanted to do, and inching toward it without—and basically, they never said that they were getting rid of the work requirement, they just glossed over that. But that was the core objective, was to get the government back in the business of subsidizing particularly single mothers who did not work.
In welfare reform in 1996 under [President Bill] Clinton, what we did was get rid of the cash program that paid single moms not to work, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and we put in a partial, imperfect, but a work requirement on that.
And we found that poverty dropped dramatically, employment went up, the teen pregnancy and birth rates dropped. They’d been rising steadily for four decades, all of a sudden they start coming down because you weren’t sending out a message that said to a 15-year-old, “Hey, have a baby. We’re going to give you cash for the next 18 years and we don’t expect you to do anything in exchange for it.”
It’s a really, really bad message to send out. Well, we needed to restore that message, according to the Biden administration. So far that’s been blocked. But again, the key there was to go with this and people did get this $300 a month. A lot of them are going to have to pay it back with tax time.
But it was hidden, it was supposed to be tax relief for the middle class, when it was really kind of a Trojan horse to get us in the direction of cash without work.
Blair: Do we see with things like the checks that came out during the COVID pandemic—I believe there were a couple of different checks that went out during the course of those two years. Do we see that as sort of like a test run for these types of programs in the future?
Rector: Clearly that rhetoric was behind it. One thing they will say is, “If you pay everybody not to work, then employers have to pay a lot more to get them to work,” which is, wow, inflation. Again, I get paid for making these conclusions, it’s an amazing job.
But yeah, that’s an old-left thing, that if you can get people so they don’t have to work, then you have to pay them more when they do work. But that implies that a lot of them are choosing not to work, which is not in their interest.
So if you listen to the rhetoric and theory behind this, yes. But back when we passed this, it was all because people couldn’t possibly survive. And then the amounts of money that we gave out, people didn’t really understand and still we started giving it out. But right now, the main way they would like to continue this is through these unconditional child payments, which become a gateway to everything else in the future.
Blair: In terms of long-term consequences of this type of policy, we’ve talked a little bit about the degradation of the family as a structure, the degradation of the role of men in terms of breadwinning, what do we see could be a long-term consequence if these types of policies are allowed to go through?
Rector: Well, you’re basically creating a violation of the basic social contract, where again, the basic social contract that we have now in a modern welfare state, is if you’re an able-bodied person, we may give you some assistance, but we expect you to make some contribution to your own support and to the support of your children. If you need something to top that off, we’ll help you. We’ll give you free education, we’ll maybe give you free medical care, some assistance, but you do have an obligation to support yourself.
We’re now violating that contract when you do this. And you’re saying everyone has a choice as to whether they will do anything to support themselves or whether they’re going to basically focus on singing in the shower.
And those who choose to work now have a double obligation. So the recipient has no obligation. Those who choose to work have a double obligation to support themselves and their families and the families of those who choose not to work. Society will fall apart under that and there’s no way of stopping it.
Most of these proposals are, “Well, we’ll give everybody $10,000 and that’ll only be 16% or 18% of the [gross domestic product] and we’ll stop there.” Wait a second, why are you stopping there? Why wouldn’t the very next week, you would have a proposal for $10,000, $500,000, and on and on and on? So most of these schemes also then have some kind of Rube Goldberg contraption to say, “Oh, well, that really wouldn’t happen.”
Charles Murray’s version has some huge constitutional amendment that is attached to it. And Yang’s proposal also had this kind of thing to keep it from going out of control, but it clearly would go out of control.
And then in fact, every election is going to be about raising that $10,000, that’ll be the vote over and over and over again. And you’re going to destroy the economy and make everyone poorer when you do that. But you’re also destroying the well-being of all the people that you’re moving aside and out of the society.
The real vision here is a brave new world. OK? That is what they’re really talking about here. And when you listen to people from Silicon Valley and things talking about a post-work world, they’re not the ones that are not going to be working. They’re going to be in these protected enclaves, and they’re going to have this vast population that has nothing to do, and they’ll be doling money out to them because they’re going to be in control.
That’s a horrible thing. Those who become the dole recipients there really have very empty lives. And I think the people that advocate for that, they view them as having empty lives in the first place, whereas I think all work has dignity.
Work is often doing something that you would prefer not to do. And when you do something worthwhile, it only has worth if somebody else is willing to work in exchange for that and that’s the nature of work. And work is very important, both economically as well as socially and psychologically.
Blair: As we begin to wrap-up this interview, we’ve talked a lot about the impacts of not having work or meaningful work in one’s life. And we’ve also talked about some of the proposed solutions that the left will offer, such as UBI. As conservatives, what should we be doing to both tamp down on anti-work rhetoric and to push back against proposals like UBI?
Rector: Right. The first thing is we have to win the war about poverty. And I’ll just simply say—because people will say, “Oh, well, the UBI is going to reduce poverty,” that’s their lead line. And I’ll just say, look, I have a proposal. I can cut the poverty rate by about 70% in 24 hours—24 hours, just like that. How do I do that? Well, I actually count the trillion dollars that we currently give to people, cash, food, housing, and medical care.
What people don’t understand when we say, “Oh, there are 50 million people living in poverty. Look at all these children living in poverty,” well, poverty is having income below a certain threshold, but what do they count as income? Well, food stamps are not income. The earned income tax credit’s not income. Housing is not income. None of the welfare state is income, it’s all off the books.
And that’s not an accident, it’s deliberately held off the books by big bureaucracy and not counted so that they can say, “Oh my God, look at all the poor people, we must spend more money.”
And the left either cynically—they basically believe this nonsense. So the first thing to do is to say, “Look, we have a welfare state that tries to combine marriage, work, and welfare together in a way and it’s very effective in reducing poverty, but you have to count it.”
You also have to accurately count people’s earnings, which the government doesn’t do. They’re missing about half of low-income earnings. So all their numbers are wrong and they’re deliberately wrong in order to create this idea of a crisis of capitalism. And therefore, we have to have a new much bigger thing.
And the secret thing is if you had a UBI, they wouldn’t count that either, according to the way they accordingly do these things. So it has no effect on poverty. The Biden Build Back Better bill, no effect on poverty at all, because none of those benefits would be counted as income. It’s all a big charade.
And it’s ridiculous that conservatives and the Republican Party have let them get away with this for 50 years. Why is it that food stamps are not income? Well, it’s because if they were counted as income, the poverty rate goes down.
So correctly count what we already spent, correctly count what people already earn, poverty rate is way down. And their impetus for doing these much more harmful experiments would, I think, dissipate. And then we would have a stronger idea for making the welfare state better.
People don’t understand that, let’s say, let’s take a mother who earns a minimum wage. She makes $14,000 a year. She’s desperately poor, but we already give her about $11,000, $12,000 in cash and food and housing benefits on top of that. So she’s actually out of poverty.
That’s a well-designed system of saying, “You do what you can to support yourself and we’ll supplement that, but we’re not going to remove your obligations for self-support.”
Blair: Right. That was Robert Rector, senior research fellow for domestic policy studies at the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity here at The Heritage Foundation. Robert, I really appreciate your time.
Rector: Sure. Thank you.
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