Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Bertrand Russell and leisure

I followed a few references in this NYT article I wrote about yesterday. It turns out there is a famous essay by Bertrand Russell with a somewhat scandalous title: "In Praise of Idleness".

I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.

Huge resources were devoted to military effort in the First World War, he says. Ordinary production was carried on with far fewer resources.

The war showed conclusively that, by the scientific organization of production, it is possible to keep modern populations in fair comfort on a small part of the working capacity of the modern world. If, at the end of the war, the scientific organization, which had been created in order to liberate men for fighting and munition work, had been preserved, and the hours of the week had been cut down to four, all would have been well. Instead of that the old chaos was restored, those whose work was demanded were made to work long hours, and the rest were left to starve as unemployed. Why? Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

It is the morality of the slave state, he says.

The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. ..

If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment -- assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organization. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure

Interestingly, we saw exactly this attitude from Judge Posner recently, and I think this is an important factor in attitudes. Militaries generally like to keep recruits training and drilling for similar reasons.

Russell continues:

When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit. It is an essential part of any such social system that education should be carried further than it usually is at present, and should aim, in part, at providing tastes which would enable a man to use leisure intelligently.

Not all would use leisure for higher purposes, of course. But some would, and they could produce more genuine value and originality than idle aristocratic classes or isolated ivory-tower academia.

Above all, there will be happiness and joy of life, instead of frayed nerves, weariness, and dyspepsia. The work exacted will be enough to make leisure delightful, but not enough to produce exhaustion. Since men will not be tired in their spare time, they will not demand only such amusements as are passive and vapid. At least one per cent will probably devote the time not spent in professional work to pursuits of some public importance, and, since they will not depend upon these pursuits for their livelihood, their originality will be unhampered, and there will be no need to conform to the standards set by elderly pundits. But it is not only in these exceptional cases that the advantages of leisure will appear. Ordinary men and women, having the opportunity of a happy life, will become more kindly and less persecuting and less inclined to view others with suspicion. The taste for war will die out, partly for this reason, and partly because it will involve long and severe work for all. Good nature is, of all moral qualities, the one that the world needs most, and good nature is the result of ease and security, not of a life of arduous struggle.

That might be hoping for too much.

Modern methods of production have given us the possibility of ease and security for all; we have chosen, instead, to have overwork for some and starvation for others. Hitherto we have continued to be as energetic as we were before there were machines; in this we have been foolish, but there is no reason to go on being foolish forever.
Russell was often criticized for his more popular writings, of course, brilliant and fluent as they are. An economist would be imclined to see this as an example of the "lump of labor fallacy." And perhaps Russell was very premature, given how much productivity has increased since.

But what I take from this is our ideas about work and virtue are tangled up in all sorts of subterranean, hidden ways. Work is now ultimately a question of who deserves what, not survival.

And it is also a matter of how and why people get bored, and the kind and degree of stimulation we want. Some people apparently want it in drugs, or endless tv. Work is often a substitute for purpose.


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