In Praise of Idleness?

By Robert Bernstein   |   January 31, 2023

Work/life balance is one part of Utopia that I just wrote about.

In Praise of Idleness was a collection of essays published by mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in 1935. In one essay he noted, “Owing to the productivity of machines, much less work than was formerly necessary is now needed to maintain a tolerable standard of comfort in the human race. Some careful writers maintain that one hour’s work a day would suffice.” To err on the “safe side” he suggests that four hour’s work a day should be enough.

When he wrote this, about 25% of Americans lived on farms. Today that number is less than two percent. A similar percentage work in home construction. Industrialization has given us great productivity at meeting basic human needs. Yet, food and housing eat up the bulk of household income. What is going on?

There are at least two problems: There is huge inequity in employment and income. Many people are overworked at low wages. Others who want to work are excluded. The other problem is waste in the system.

Russell took an example of a pin factory. Suppose an invention doubles the productivity of the factory. In a sensible world, shouldn’t the workers work half as much for the same wage? That is not what happens in our system. One possibility is that there is an overproduction of pins, causing prices and wages to fall. Half the factories go bankrupt and their workers are unemployed.

Russell noted that this extends to the fact that most businesses fail. Most of the work that went into building that business and its products ends up wasted.

Russell noted that hard work is glorified in our society. Some translations of the New Testament say, “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Who preaches such ideology? Russell noted that the idle rich say this to get poor workers to allow them to be the idle rich!

Nearly one third of the Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans inherited their wealth and did little to create new wealth. A comparable fraction created new wealth but got major help growing up in a family with money.

At the same time, Russell notes that the idle rich historically were the source of the art, literature, music, and science that we call civilization. Not that most idle rich produced these things, but some did – at the expense of slaves or wage slaves. But modern technology should allow everyone to participate in such creative activity, once they have put in their four hours a day fulfilling basic needs.

Everyone has a creative side, but few get a chance to develop it. He suggests proper lifelong education is one way to enhance everyone’s natural creativity.

In some ways we have gone backwards. In feudal times, serfs worked long hours during planting and harvest season. But there were also many holidays. And plenty of time for music and dancing and other “frivolous” activities. By some measures, modern industrialized workers work more hours per year than did medieval serfs.

The glorification of work and productivity goes with a disdain for enjoyment of life. How does this make sense? What is the point of someone working hard to create a product or service if no one has the time to enjoy it? Production and enjoyment are two sides of the same transaction. Russell noted this is like saying that “keys are good, but keyholes are bad.”

But he also asks if we need enjoyment to be a matter of production and consumption. He noted that much of modern leisure is taken up passively watching movies and sports and listening to the radio. (This was before TV and the Internet!)

Proper education and opportunities for creativity can allow active participation for everyone.

One notable waste that Russell talked about was fresh in everyone’s mind after World War I: The waste of war. Militarism is both a cause and an effect of overwork and misery in his view. People who have more leisure will be kinder and less eager to cause harm to others. And they will not be eager to give up that leisure putting in long hours of work for a pointless war!

Another waste is due to crime and drug abuse by those who are excluded from our economy.

Almost a century has passed since In Praise of Idleness. Yet we still are stuck with a 40-hour work week. Isn’t it time to revisit how we use our time?


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