The One Good
According to Idle Theory, only one good - idle time - is being produced, traded, and consumed in an economic trading system. Useful tools make idle time for men, and luxuries use up idle time. Idleness is the summum bonum of Idle Theory,
But useful tools can only express their value in a trading system which distributes these tools to those who need them. The trading system, and the money and prices that enable trade, in themselves form a kind of useful tool, which increases the idleness of men.
Within the trading system, codes of moral conduct also serve to increase social idleness. Actions are right or wrong depending on whether they increase or decrease social idleness. Activities which decrease social idleness may be declared illegal, and subject to penalties.
Everything that serves, in whatever way, to increase human social idleness belongs to a class of Primary Goods. These goods serve to create idle time. Everything that serves, in whatever way, to use up idle time belongs to a class of Secondary Goods. All the delights and pleasures of life belong in this class of Secondary Goods. They are secondary because they entirely depend upon the prior creation of idle time by primary goods.
Useful tools, traded using money, within a law-abiding society act to produce idle time. This idle time is then available to be used to make luxuries, play games, or whatever people choose to do with their idle time.
All art, music, literature, theatre, poetry, philosophy, sex, games, conversation, study, require idle time. If the primary economy cannot deliver idle time, there can be none of these things. The nature of secondary goods is that they are actions performed, or things constructed, for their own sake.
The assertion that these activities are secondary is not intended to trivialize or diminish them. In many cases, literary or philosophical works, or studies of one sort or other, may result in outcomes which are of primary importance. Almost all prototype tools begin life as luxuries that cost more than they are worth. Mathematical theorems which prove to be valuable may be discovered by pure mathematicians who have no interest in any application. Moral dilemmas, of primary concern to society, may first be illustrated and examined in novels or plays.
Idle Theory does not concern itself with what men do in their idle time, but with making that idle time, providing that freedom. It is only concerned with idle time activities to the extent that these reduce human idleness.
The Primary Economy
Human life is only sustained by work. This is necessary or obligatory work to provide food and shelter and clothing. In the worst of conditions, this inescapable work may occupy a large proportion of available time, leaving little or no leisure. However, by employing time-saving tools, men can reduce the demands of work upon their time, and increase their idle time or leisure. Time-saving tools are tools whose time cost of production is exceeded by the savings of time - their use value - they make in one or other necessary activity.
The primary economy is the tool trading system which provides men with idle time or leisure. It is driven by need, not want. Within it, necessary work is minimized by employing useful (time-saving) tools. The mean idleness of the primary economy is the measure of its success, and can range between a lower limit of 0 (0% idle, unremitting toil) and 1 (100% complete leisure). Growth in the primary economy means growing mean idleness. There is an inherent limit to growth. Mean idleness can also fall as well as rise.
The Secondary Economy
The secondary economy is the toy trading system built upon the leisure time provided by the primary economy. There is no necessity for a secondary economy to exist at all. The toy trading system is driven by want rather than need. A want is some inclination or fancy that arises in idle time.
In their idle time, men may (or may not, depending on their inclination) choose to make and trade a variety of toys, amusements, and luxuries. These toys and amusements provide pleasure or delight.
The monetary value of such toys is the idle time that a buyer is prepared to give up in order to acquire it. The use value of the toy is the hours of idle time it whiles away in play. Thus while a primary economy produces leisure time, the secondary economy disposes of it.
The toy trading system is inherently subject to fickle fashions and fads. What is delightful and amusing one day may be tedious and boring the next; what is all the rage one day is passť the next.
If the primary economy produces very little idle time, a secondary toy-trading economy may not come into existence, and there will be few toys or none. If the primary economy is so successful that it generates 100% idleness, and all time is idle time, then the secondary economy is the only economy: that is, only toys and amusements are produced and traded. (This is the world described by neo-classical economic theory)
Comparisons with Utilitarianism
Idle Theory's approach to ethics has many parallels with an Utilitarian ethics which makes Happiness or Pleasure the primary good.
But Idleness is not Happiness. There is no reason to suppose that an idle man is a happy man: he may be bored, or aimless. But an idle man is able to experience pleasure in ways that a busy man cannot. A busy man has no time for the pleasures of life, no time in which to exercise his own will, do as he chooses - he is constrained to work, to some particular set of activities, and no other. Only idle men can do as they choose, or as they please. What they do may bring them happiness, or it may not. An idle man is a free man. Such freedom is an essential prerequisite of happiness, no doubt, but it is not happiness itself. An idle man can pursue happiness or pleasure, successfully or unsuccessfully: but a busy man has not the time. An idle man can do as he pleases, but it may not give him pleasure: a busy man can only do what he must.
As a variant of Utilitarianism, Idle Theory escapes the problem of measuring happiness, which was never solved by Utilitarianism. Idleness is measured in time, and by clocks. It is possible, at least in principle, to measure the time cost of production of tools, and the labour they save in use, and hence the idleness of those who make and use them. The defect of Utilitarianism, that its summum bonum could not be measured, ensured that its attempt to construct a hedonic calculus was bound to fail. Idle Theory's comparable calculus, by contrast, can be relatively easily developed and elaborated.
Ethical theories, such as Utilitarianism, may be seen to offer advice as to how to behave to men who are free moral agents. By contrast, Idle Theory is concerned only with the ways in which men should behave in order to become free moral agents. Idle Theory offers no advice as to how free agents should act. Idle Theory's goal state - a general idleness, a general freedom to choose - is the premise on which other ethical theories are erected. They begin where Idle Theory ends. In this sense, Idle Theory is not an ethical theory of universal applicability. In a world in which men were perfectly idle, and perfectly free, Idle Theory would have no advice to offer. In some sense, Idle Theory is comparable to that kind of medicine which seeks to cure sickness and repair broken limbs, but which takes no further interest in patients once they have been discharged from hospital with their health restored.
Author: Chris Davis
Created: 25 Sep 1998
Last edited: 3 Nov 2000