So, there’s a nuance here, regarding UBI.

The nuance (which even communists tend to miss!) is that there’s no reason that labor (and feelings of accomplishment related to labor) have to have any association with survival resources.

It’s an accident of history that we have such a direct association between labor and survival: in nomadic tribes, resources tend to go into a shared pot distributed by mechanisms unrelated to the labor it took to gather them, and even post-agriculture, farming families (themselves their own semi-isolated societies) did the same. (And, of course, in a monarchy resources are extracted from a hard-working population and given to an elite for redistribution on the grounds of inherited roles, unrelated to effort ratios.) Capitalism (in the sense of the widespread belief that trading labor for money is normal and natural, as opposed to a quirk of a tiny merchant class) was only about a hundred years old when Marx wrote about it.

UBI necessarily overturns this connection, which already (again necessarily) was already untrue at the margins: the extremely wealthy often do volunteer or charity work, and although this is good for PR, it’s also likely that in many cases it serves primarily to provide a source of fulfilling labor for people who have no need for more money; people unable to perform the type or scale of work necessary to produce a living wage still have productive hobbies (I know several people on disability who do a lot of knitting and crochet, and others who are authors), and although making money off those hobbies would lose them their existing income (without making up for it), they are willing to put time, effort, and scarce resources into sometimes gruelling work in order to feel productive.

If labor satisfaction and wage satisfaction had a deep connection, rather than one of convenience, the rich wouldn’t work for free, and the poor definitely wouldn’t work for free; but, neither of these things are remotely true.

Considering that satisfying labor is rare (or, in marxist terms, modern labor of all kinds typically alienates the worker from his product), we can argue that there is in fact a contradiction between being paid for labor and feeling satisfied by it. Part of this can be attributed to circumstances: if some necessary labor is inherently and universally unsatisfying, then anyone who does it will be unsatisfied; if all labor is satisfying to someone but each person is suited to a particular type of labor, then low margins of error and high risk related to attempts to move between fields result in most people who aren’t comfortably wealthy being trapped in jobs that can’t satisfy them. Part of it is also human nature: satisfaction is extremely sensitive to cognitive dissonance, and experiments show that a sense of satisfaction will be manufactured in response to a situation where the effort to reward ratio is low. (Why do people read Finnegan’s Wake and play Dark Souls? Why does everyone who finishes those things love them? Because casual interest is quickly punished, and because the sunk cost must be justified to account for the vast gulf between casual interest and sufficient interest.)

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Resident hypertext crank. Author of Big and Small Computing: Trajectories for the Future of Software. http://www.lord-enki.net

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