IdleTheory Dragon Economy

A dragon economy forces people to work longer than the nominal idleness of the economy.


In Idle Theory's vision of economic systems, in a primary economy people make and use tools which increase their idleness, or the amount of their disposable leisure or free time. And in a secondary economy, people use their idle time to make and use luxuries and amusements and toys to enjoy in their idle time.

Ideally, growth in the primary idleness-producing economy should result in increasing social idleness, and the emergence or growth of a secondary luxury-producing, idleness-consuming economy. The primary economy generates idle time, and the secondary economy generates fun things like games, art, music, literature, and so on. However, while it is a matter of necessity, and of human survival, for the primary economy to maintain or increase human idleness, it is not, or should not be, a matter of necessity for people to produce art, music, and literature. Indeed, if it ever did become a matter of necessity for people to produce such luxuries, then the secondary economy would act to negate the gains in idleness generated by the primary economy: the idle time produced by the primary economy would be consumed by the secondary economy. The result would be a vicious circle of work, in which everyone was kept busy all the time, producing either useful time-saving tools in the primary economy, or luxuries and amusements in the secondary economy. The name I have given for such a vicious circle is a Dragon Economy.

One extreme example of a dragon economy is one in which one individual supplies everyone else with the necessities of life, but at such a price that they must work nearly continuously paying him with luxuries of one sort or other. Such a dragon economy may be nominally 80% idle, but is actually 20% idle because most of its idle time is devoted to the obligatory production of luxuries. By nominal or underlying idleness is meant the idleness of the system if the manufacture and distribution of secondary goods such as luxuries and toys is regarded as idle time activity. Actual or real idleness is the experienced idleness of society.

In general, when tools are sold, the price should fall somewhere between their value and their cost, so that both buyer and seller gain from the transaction. If some tool is sold at cost, the seller gains nothing from the transaction, except to be compensated for his efforts in producing the tool. Equally, if tools are sold at their value, the buyer gains nothing from the transaction, the savings of time provided by the tool being entirely offset by the price of the tool. In general, where there are many competing manufacturers and suppliers of tools, prices will be pushed down towards costs, as discerning buyers buy the cheapest tools, and get best value for their money. On the other hand, where there is only one manufacturer or supplier, or manufacturers are unable to meet demand, prices will generally rise towards tool values, since buyers are unable to find cheaper alternatives.

One way such a dragon economy may arise is when useful, time-saving tools are sold in the primary economy at prices that approximate to their value. In this circumstance, buyers of useful tools will find that they are working just as hard as if they had no tools at all. If the cost of a loaf of bread is one hour of work, and the value of a loaf of bread is that it provides 24 hours of continued life, then if bread is sold at cost, it will take buyers one hour of work per day to secure 24 hours of continued life, and will have 23 hours each day in which to perform other tasks, or idly do as they choose. But if such bread is sold at value, it will require buyers to work 24 hours of work per day to secure 24 hours of continued life, and they will (neglecting sleep) be working continuously to stay alive. And at the same time, a monopolist selling bread at its value will acquire a very large income from it, equal to the sum of expenditures of all of its buyers. With this income, he is able to buy all their labour, and set them to work not just to free himself from toil, but to provide him with a large mansion, filled with elegant paintings, surrounded by a beautiful garden adorned with ornamental lakes and statues. In this scheme of things, rather than real wealth (idle time) being approximately equally distributed across society, it would become concentrated in the hands of a single individual, or a small group of individuals, for whom everyone else worked, painting pictures, chiselling statues, mowing lawns, weeding flowerbeds, and cooking breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. To earn their daily bread, they would be effectively employed as architects, builders, painters, sculptors, musicians, gardeners, and chefs. Or conversely, they might be employed as soldiers in armies.

And, in addition to this, if the idleness of individuals without tools - untooled idleness - was less than zero, this would mean that without tools they would die. In this circumstance, anyone who had found themselves locked into a dragon economy would be unable to escape by 'dropping out' and living outside of society. They would be faced with a choice between a life of near-continuous toil, or death.

The hallmarks of a dragon economy may be said to be:

  • The existence of monopolies or cartels that sell primary goods at high prices.
  • Primary goods are exchanged for secondary goods. Or necessities are exchanged for luxuries.
  • Idleness is not equally distributed across society. Some people become both idle and materially rich, while others are busy and materially poor.
  • Real idleness, as experienced by society, is less than underlying idleness.
  • There is very often no escape possible, no alternative mode of existence.

It might be asked: what is wrong with such dragon economies? Are they not perfectly normal? Do they not provide employment, and keep people virtuously industrious? Do they not generate considerable amounts of material wealth? Does it really matter that some people come out rather better than others?

The inequity of this scheme of things might be discounted as being simply the inevitable result of there always being winners and losers in the game of life, and in a different lottery someone else might have been the lucky winner. To which it might be replied that life is not a game. A game is something played in idle time. And life does not consist entirely of idle time. An economic system is not a game, but the means by which humans cooperate to maintain their livelihood. And since it is an essentially cooperative venture, its principal product - idle time - ought to be shared, as far as possible, approximately equally across the whole of society. Idle Theory's ethics places strong value on increasing idleness, and since dragon economies decrease real idleness, Idle Theory has to condemn dragon economies on principle.

It might also be raised in defence of this scheme of things that it generates palatial mansions, exquisite paintings and sculptures, and elegant gardens, which would not otherwise have been produced if wealth had been more equally distributed. In an egalitarian system, people would have most likely sat around doing nothing more with their idle time than sit talking or sleeping. How much better that they all be set to work doing something constructive. To which the response might be that there is nothing that says that a day spent in conversation is just as valuable as one spent building a brick wall. The Greek peripatetic philosophers spent days and days just ambling around talking. Reputedly the greatest of them all, Socrates, never even bothered to write a book. Nor for that matter, did the Buddha. Nor Jesus Christ. Would the world have been a better place if these people had stopped talking and done something constructive - like do some carpentry?

And, against such a scheme of things, might it not be suggested that it would bring all technological innovation to an end. The monopoly producers of bread, or some other primary good, would have no need of find ways to bake better loaves of bread more cheaply. And their busy employees would not have the idle time in which to engage in any innovation.

Furthermore, since this scheme of things results in almost everyone working hard all their lives, making and selling luxuries and amusements, does it not equally follow that it is one which maximimizes the consumption of natural resources, and maximizes the generation of waste products? Absolutely everything that is made, from the smallest toothpick to the grandest palace, is ultimately destined, sooner or later, to become so much trash and rubble. Entire cities have been built, only to decay and collapse. Dragon economies, by keeping everybody busy working, chew through resources and spew out wastes at the maximum rate. And if these wastes poison the air, the land, and the water, they must gradually poison everybody - the rich included.

But finally, by keeping everybody busy, and maintaining real social idleness near to zero, this organisation of society poses a threat to the continued existence of human society. For if everybody is necessarily constantly working, there exists no buffer against any sudden worsening of the conditions of existence. However, in a dragon economy there may be a high underlying idleness, and in the event of some emergency (e.g. war) people who are busy making luxuries may be rapidly re-assigned to other tasks (e.g. fighting wars).

The Modern Dragon Economy

In modern Western society, a great many of the goods on sale in shops are luxuries. Something is a luxury if its use does not increase idleness. A luxury is also generally something that is desired for its own sake, for the pleasure it provides. Pretty much all art, music, literature, antiques, hi-fis, greetings cards, flowers, and the like, fall into the category of luxuries. And even though fashionable clothes may have some thermal insulation, they are generally bought for their pleasing appearance, and are therefore also luxuries. The same applies to high cuisine as sold in upmarket restaurants: it may have some nutritional value, but it is primarily consumed for the pleasure of its taste. There is, in short, a very active secondary economy operating within modern Western economic systems.

And given that such secondary luxury-producing economies can only appear if there is sufficient social idle time available, the presence of copious quantities and varieties of such luxuries in modern economies strongly suggests that modern primary economies are actually performing well in generating high levels of social idleness.

Now it could well be that, in modern Western society, that the primary economy has largely emancipated society from toil, and that the secondary economy is the manifestation of this freedom, and is made up of many people who have freely chosen to set themeselves to work to make and trade luxuries and amusements, because in their view life is the better that way. If so, this is their chosen way of life. And if they had freely chosen to behave in this manner, they could equally freely choose not to, and chosen to do something else. They might, for example, have decided that they preferred not to have such luxuries and amusements, but instead to pass their time in contemplation, or playing football, or whatever.

How might we know that this is not so? We may know because it is apparent that a great many people who are making and selling these various luxuries and amusements are doing so in order to put a roof over their head, and food on their tables. That is, they are exchanging luxuries for necessities. These authors, actors, artists, and musicians are earning their living from their trade. And because they are earning their living, it is a matter of necessity for them to write books, perform in movies, paint pictures, and perform concerts. And this is the hallmark of a dragon economy. All these artists are not doing what they want to do, but doing what they have to do.

And at the same time, we may notice that in these modern Western economies, there are relatively small numbers of people who are fabulously wealthy. This also is another hallmark of a dragon economy. The richest man in the world is (or was) reputed to be Microsoft's Bill Gates. What does he sell? He sells the operating system of a computer. Are computers fashion accessories? Are they luxuries? No: they are useful tools. A computer is something that can perform mathematical calculations at prodigious speeds, millions of times faster than an unaided human, counting on his fingers. Such computers allow businesses to compile accounts, keep track of stocks, receive orders, carry out transactions, and control and monitor any number of processes. Computers and their operating systems, and the programs that run under the control of such operating systems, are prime modern examples of useful tools. And, as such, they are components of the primary economy. But have these computers made the societies which use them any more idle? Have working hours been cut? Have people been freed from toil, and allowed to do as they choose, rather than do as they must? The answer is: no. Everyone is working just as hard as before. With about two days in seven idle, social idleness is less than 30%. The underlying idleness of society may have increased, but the actual idleness has not changed. Indeed, it may even have fallen.

All that has happened, more or less with every such primary technological innovation (such as computers) which have raised underlying social idleness, is that more and more people are selling luxury goods and services. More or less everyone is kept working. Only they are now kept working providing luxuries rather than necessities. There are more and more artists, musicians, authors, architects, actors, couturiers, chefs, television and radio presenters, professional footballers and golfers and tennis players, etc, etc. One might gain a rough assessment of the underlying idleness of the primary economy simply by counting how many people are at school, retired, unemployed, or selling luxury goods and services, and how many are selling useful tools or necessities. If in a population of a million people, 600,000 people are hairdressers, artists, musicians, or the like, then the underlying idleness of the primary economy is about 60%.

In a dragon economy, finding employment in the secondary economy largely depends on the high income earners in the primary economy spending their incomes on luxuries generated by the secondary economy. If they cease doing this, then jobs in the secondary economy vanish, and unemployment results. As so as underlying social idleness rises, large scale unemployment is one frequent consequence, and is one way in which rising idleness is expressed. But as underlying social idleness rises, it becomes easier to support such unemployed people. A 50% idle primary economy allows one person to support 2 people. A 90% idle primary economy allows one person to support 10 people. And in a 99% idle economy, one person can support 100 people.

In a dragon economy with high underlying idleness, if anyone wishes to escape from work, it is generally not going to be by inventing a useful new tool, but by selling some luxury commodity or service. For the higher the underlying idleness of society, the harder it becomes to increase idleness. At perfect idleness, there is no possibility of increasing idleness whatsoever. So in a high-idleness dragon economy, the only way out is to get rich and idle by selling some luxury or luxury service.

But the secondary economy that is selling all these luxuries is notoriously fickle. It is largely driven by fashion. While anyone who is selling primary goods - such as oil, or wheat, or computers - is more or less guaranteed to find a market, any artist is likely to suddenly find that they can fall out of fashion just as quickly as they came into fashion. People need oil and wheat and computers, in a way that they do not need music or art or fiction. When the Beatles took America by storm in the 1960s, they made a generation of crooners (and hairdressers) redundant overnight. What sells like hot cakes one day may lie unsold on the shelves the next. For every Beatles, there were 10,000 would-be Beatles.

And at the same time that everyone is working, very often in manual labour, to that extent they are prone to injury, suffering cuts, bruises, pulled backs, twisted legs, torn ligaments, broken limbs, and even death. And to the extent that they are working with hazardous materials, to that extent they are likely to be poisoned or otherwise injured. And to the extent that people are repeatedly performing the same physical actions, to that extent they are liable to suffer from repetitive strain disorders, or from premature arthritis. In Japan, death through overwork - karoshi - is a recognised cause of death.

And because everybody is kept working, in an increasingly uncertain and fickle secondary economy, people are increasingly psychologically stressed. And one result of this is the increasing use of drugs - tobacco, alcohol, opium, etc - to relieve stress.

And to the extent that people are kept busy, to that extent they must be unable to participate in society. It is in their idle time that people are able to consider weighty issues of the day, and discuss them and form considered opinions. To the extent that they have no time to think, they become unable to make considered judgments about any such matters, including matters concerned with their own lives. The busier people are, the less informed and educated they will be, and more easily open to propagandisation. And they will have little time in which to cultivate friendships and build communities.

The rise of consumer society may have been a response to living in a dragon economy where, for most people, real idleness was an immutably fixed quantity - a Sunday, or a two-day weekend, every seven-day week -, and the only way life could be made more enjoyable was through buying luxury consumer goods or services to add spice to what little leisure time there was. Living had to be crammed into just one or two days, and it had to be exciting enough to compensate for the tedium of the previous week of work. Going shopping, seeing movies, getting drunk, having sex, made for a day or two of frenzied excitement. Metaphorically, after 5 or 6 days of bread and water, the starving man wanted a 12-course dinner with all the trimmings, washed down with lashings of champagne. Or, in another metaphor, if a prisoner is to live all his life in a cell, he may at least be able to improve it by laying down carpets, acquiring a well-sprung bed and comfortable armchair, decorating the walls with gold-framed paintings, and imagining himself to be a prince in a palace. If real idleness were to increase, people would probably no longer feel quite the same need to binge over weekends in compensation.

One of the principal features of a dragon economy is that luxuries are sold in exchange for necessities. Prostitution, in which pleasurable sexual services are sold in exchange for money to buy food and shelter, also entails exchanging luxuries for necessities. Indeed, if prostitution is the archetypal form of such exchange, the condition of much of humanity in a dragon economy is one of prostitution. Such a condition of prostitution should be condemned - but not the prostitutes themselves, who are generally driven by necessity rather than by choice into their trade.

And in such dragon economies, in which there are idle rich at one end, and toiling poor at the other end, it is the natural propensity of people to try to move from the latter to the former condition, exactly in the same way that people in a capsized ship clamber from the bottom to the top of it. In both cases they are driven by simple desperation, or necessity. What is usually called 'greed' and 'avarice' or 'human nature' is really nothing but the natural response of anyone in a desperate circumstances, in fear of losing their life. The frantic desire for wealth is simply the flip side of the dread of abject poverty. It isn't human nature that drives a dragon economy, but rather the dragon economy that drives human nature. The idea that it is human greed and avarice that drives the economy is one that grows from supposing that humans are absolutely free, and that their economic systems are of their own design, and that these economic systems can be redesigned and remade entirely at will, if necessary by 'smashing the system' beforehand. In reality, however, human economic systems have an inherent and remorseless logic of their own, and the only way they will be brought under human control is by learning to understand how they work, in exactly the same way that humans are only able to escape from Earth into outer space through understanding the equally remorseless laws of gravity and motion.

If greed and avarice are not causes, but instead effects or consequences, then it follows that if the desperate circumstance of a dragon economy is alleviated, so also will the desperate greed and avarice that is consequent upon it.

The Shutdown of a Dragon Economy

And if the principal motor of a dragon economy is the existence of monopoly suppliers of high priced useful tools, then the solution to the problem is in principle straightforward: such monopolies or cartels should be broken up, so as to re-introduce benign competition between tool suppliers, and bring tool prices down. The result would be that the necessities of life would become cheaper, and a secondary economy driven by selling luxuries for necessities would wind down, and life for ordinary people would become idler and more egalitarian. If tool prices fell to just prices, idleness would be equalised across society at whatever level the primary economy operated. A secondary economy could still exist and flourish in idle time, but it would no longer be driven by necessity, but instead by personal individual choice. People could still get rich in the secondary economy, but only by selling luxuries and amusements and toys, but mostly not by selling necessities.

Such a break-up of monopolies is probably easier said than done. Monopolies and cartels would probably continually re-form at every opportunity. There would need to be anti-trust laws and powers with absolutely ferocious teeth. And as competition acted to bring down prices, leaving perhaps only a few suppliers in business that could form new cartels or monopolies, one possible role that the state might take is to guarantee continuing competition by buying up bankrupt industries and maintaining them on the state payroll. Such industries, perhaps using obsolete technologies, would be able to make and sell tools less efficiently and at higher prices than the private sector, but would exist primarily to prevent new monopolies raising prices higher than those sold by the state sector.

There may be other ways of shutting down a dragon economy, that might emerge from deeper studies of their operation. The problem is akin to throttling back a racing engine to idling speed. There are lots of ways this may be done, but the danger is that the engine is stopped or stalled - and this would be disastrous. But the analogy of a racing engine shows what the danger of leaving the engine racing, and racing faster and faster: in the end it will overheat and seize up or tear itself apart, with equally disastrous results. Needless to say, the application of brute force, to simply smash the engine, is bound to be disastrous.

Methods that don't look very promising include those of taking primary industries into state control. This effectively just hands monopolies from private ownership to public ownership. They remain monopolies, and are likely to remain inefficient in the absence of competition. And there is nothing that says that public ownership is necessarily more benign than private ownership. Indeed, while a state may regulate private sector industries, it is effectively trying to regulate itself when such industries are taken into public ownership.

The net result of a controlled shutdown would be that currently hyperactive economies would wind down. With people no longer being forced to make luxuries to buy necessities, the production of luxuries and the provision of luxury services would dwindle. Shops would close, the roads would clear of traffic, energy consumption would fall, and carbon dioxide and other toxic emissions would be reduced. Work-related injury and illness would plummet. People would become healthier. High levels of stress and anxiety would drop. Rates of drug addiction and suicide would fall.

There would be far fewer consumer goods on sale, but much more leisure time for everybody. The pace of life would drop. People would begin to walk or ride bicycles, rather than ride in high speed vehicles. Entire areas would become pedestrian precincts. People who had never had time to think about anything would find that they now had plenty of time for it. Education standards would rise. Increased leisure time would allow people to spend more time together, building and extending friendships. Hitherto atomised societies, dormitory towns, would begin to rebuild local communities. Previously centralised societies would become dispersed communities, local government becoming more important than central government. Mass culture would be replaced by local culture. With most people at or near their homes, and more eyes watching what was happening, street crime would fall. Children would receive more attention from once-busy parents. With much reduced needs to travel to find work, social mobility would fall. With life being pretty much one long holiday, people would stop taking holidays. Instead of building their lives around work and careers, people would begin to build their lives around leisure and their own personal interests. A leisure culture would replace a work culture. Children would be given an education, rather than simply regimented for a life of regimented work. Old people who had retired from work would find that everybody else had retired as well. Football and tennis and golf would be de-professionalised, but many more people would play them as purely amateur pastimes, rather than watching them on television.

The result would not be utopian. In busy societies, or dragon economies, everyone knows what they have to do. In an idle society, work would cease to provide the defining purpose of life. The possibilities of what could be done with a life would become giddyingly infinite. This could be terrifying. And the whole framework of life, which had always been arranged around work, would vanish. It would be as if a lifeboat full of people had rowed diligently in concert together, and then stepped onto some green shore: absolutely everything would change.

Idle Theory does not address the problem of what people might do given lives of near-complete idleness. Idle Theory is only concerned with attaining that goal. It is perhaps the the most ancient goal in all human existence.

At present the principal political goal of Western society is not to free people from work, but, quite the opposite, to try to maintain full employment in wealth creation. And dragon economies do exactly this, and maintain traditional working society. But because they keep everyone working and innovating, their underlying idleness is steadily rising, and since less and less work needs to be done, there is a regular tendency for mass unemployment to break out. As hard as political leaders try to steer away from the prospect of a terminal general idleness, the more steadily the ship of humanity is drawn towards it. The harder that political leaders attempt to maintain traditional working society, by inventing work, the more absurd and futile the attempt becomes, and the more traditional society dissolves away as they try to hold it together.

And there is perhaps no escape from an idle future, because at some point underlying idleness will reach something approximating to perfect idleness, and traditional working society will helplessly disintegrate: dragon economies may eventually shut themselves down. In a perfectly idle society, it is impossible to maintain a dragon economy. If so, rather than trying to escape an inevitable fate, as at present, it might be wiser to consider how to manage the transition from a busy work-centred society to an idle leisure-centred society. The greatest danger, perhaps, is that the transition will happen shockingly abruptly, as traditional society disintegrates overnight. It would be better if busy work-centred societies were slowly wound down to become idle leisure-centred societies, in an orderly transition.

And perhaps a few social experiments might be tried, artificially creating and maintaining near-perfectly idle societies, and studying what happens. Many of these experiments may turn out to be disastrous. But, little by little, a body of experience is likely to be built up, to provide a structured environment, and perhaps new set of social institutions.

The principal obstacle to the adoption of such policies is that most political leaders simply don't see economic systems through the eyes of Idle Theory. In their view, the purpose of an economy is to provide jobs to create wealth as it conventionally understood to be, and in their view a successful and vibrant economy is one in which everyone is busy creating wealth. Indeed, political leaders may themselves be beneficiaries of this stream of wealth. Underpinning all this is also a deeply entrenched work ethic, a conviction that work is a good thing in itself, and that everybody ought to do it. Idle Theory, by inverting this conventional value system, and valuing leisure above work, turns this orthodoxy upside down. It asks that the success of an economic system not be measured by Gross National Product - the pile of goods produced -, but instead by its idleness, and also its degree of equality. And, if Idle Theory's shifted value system is alien to contemporary orthodoxy, its further notion of a 'dragon' economy is yet more alien still.

But attitudes may change. One of the arguments that runs through this essay (and throughout Idle Theory generally) is that how people think is determined by the circumstances they find themselves in, and seldom vice versa. Political orthodoxy reflects economic reality. And should the reality change, so will orthodox thinking. And since economic reality is always in flux, it follows that political orthodoxy is also in flux.

Addendum 2009

A dragon economy may simply be something that periodically arises during times of rapid economic growth. The makers of new tools are de facto monopolists, because they are the only people making the new tool. As monopolists they charge the highest prices, and reap the highest profits. The result is that the idleness of the monopolists rises towards unity, and they can no longer be recompensed with further increased idleness, but instead with luxury goods and services. This circumstance endures until competitors act to bring down prices. But competitors may be slow in arriving, hampered by ignorance and patents. So in the non-equilibrium condition where an economy is growing rapidly, there will tend to be lots of monopoly producers selling new tools at very high prices, and being rewarded with luxuries - which is the principal feature of a dragon economy. This is further discussed here.

A simulation model of a simple dragon economy.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Feb 2007
Last edited: May 2009