Useful Tools

In Idle Theory, a useful tool is something whose value is that it creates or saves time, and whose time cost of production is less than the total amount of time it creates or saves.

A tool requires some amount of work to be done to produce it, ready for use. This work - the cost - entails a decrease in idleness. When put to use, the tool that saves time increases idleness over its working lifetime.

For the most part, what is meant by a tool is some implement, such as a knife or a spade or bag, which humans use to expedite their work. But a more general meaning can be supplied, to encompass a wider range of time-productive devices or methods.

The Varieties of Useful Tools
1 Human beings are themselves the primary tool in the tool system. Untooled humans - that is humans lacking any physical implements - are capable of carrying out a great many tasks. They lift and carry objects. They can dig and break with their hands. They can cut with their teeth.
Seen as tools, humans themselves require work to shape them. A human child begins entirely dependent on its parents, needing to be fed and clothed and educated by them. It is only after some years that a child becomes able to perform work - be useful -. The working life of a human being may be some 50 years or more, before injury, or disease, or natural ageing reduces their work capacity. Thus the human tool has a cost, and a value, and a lifetime.
The primary difference between human tools and other tools is that the tool system is arranged to minimize the use of human labour.
2 Food, although generally regarded as a necessity of life, can also be regarded as a tool. A plate of food costs some amount of time or energy to come by, and it supplies some amount of energy, some period of continued life.
3 Shelter, whether in the form of clothing or housing, is again generally regarded as a necessity of life, but can also be regarded as a useful tool. The insulation provided by clothing or housing acts, in cold climates, to reduce the rate of heat loss from the human body to a level which internal metabolic processes can match, and thereby maintain body temperature at a stable level. In the absence of clothing, humans can only increase internal heat production through vigorous activity. The effect of clothing is thus to save them this labour, reduce their energy consumption, and increase the value of food. That is, the plate of food which will keep a well-clothed man alive for a week, may only maintain alive an energetically shivering man for a day.
As food, clothing and housing are only to be had at a cost. Clothes become worn, and houses fall into ruin, and so both have a natural lifespan during which they provide value.
4 The varieties of implements that humans use - knives, spades, bags - in their everyday business also have value. A knife enables a branch to be cut more quickly, and with less effort, than can be managed with bare hands. A spade enables roots to be dug up more rapidly than can be achieved by digging with bare hands. A bag that can hold many fruits or roots saves the many journeys that would be made otherwise, holding them clutched in arms. These tools cost some effort to make. The knife - if flint - must be shaped from the natural stone. The spade must be fashioned from some material. The bag must be made up from skins or branches or hair. All these implements wear out as they are used, and are subject to natural decay, and so have a limited lifetime during which their value is realized.
5 Animals, such as oxen, which are used to draw a plough, or to turn a grindstone, perform work on behalf of humans. Their value is the time they save humans. Their cost is the cost of rearing them, feeding them, housing them, and training them.
Other animals may perform other tasks. A horse-mounted human can travel much faster than on foot. Horses can pull carriages. Mules can carry loads. Predators such as cats can keep down the populations of pests.
6 Weapons, used in military conquest, provide booty - including useful tools -, slaves, and tax revenues from defeated peoples. Weapons, military training and military campaigns, are the cost; the spoils of war are the value. Of course, military power may also be used to defend against aggression, and to raise the cost of military ventures above any value that might accrue from them
7 Money may also be counted as a useful tool, to the extent that it facilitates trade which puts useful tools in the hands of the largest numbers of people. It may be difficult to assess what the convenience value of using money, as against bartering with other goods, may actually be. But it seems clear that in the absence of money, trade is slowed, restricted, and sometimes even prevented.
8 Ethical conduct, which acts to maximize time gains to society, and to minimize time losses, also has the character of a useful tool. The rules of ethical conduct require to be taught - the cost - but their value subsequently emerges in the harmonious operation of a society in which tools are not stolen, manufacturers not injured or killed, promises kept, nuisance and interruption minimized.
9 Mathematics may also be regarded as a useful tool. The skill to calculate the area of a triangle, or the volume of a cylinder, may take time to acquire - the cost -, but the saving of time of being able to do this, compared with the option of direct measurement, is considerable. If such measurements are frequently required, then such mathematical skills are of great value.
What applies to mathematical skills may be said to apply to many other skills, and to learning in general.

Useful tools may be seen as any object or technique which serve to increase idleness. But it is the idleness of the human tool which is to be increased, and all other tools (including tools which help make tools) are all concerned with increasing human idleness.

Since useful tools such as knives, spades, and bags have a time value greater than their time cost of production, they return more than is spent upon them, and are thus inherently profitable. This is the origin of profit.


Where the value of a good is lower than its cost, it is a luxury. A bad tool, such as a knife that blunts the first time it is used, or a bag that bursts, is an unwanted luxury. Instead of creating idle time, luxuries use up idle time. But most luxuries are desired for the amusement they provide. The value of luxuries may be negative. For example, the cost of producing a chess set may be quite small, but the amount of time that is used in playing chess may be large. A painting may take many days to complete, but only receive an occasional glance.

If luxuries are desired, it is for the pleasure or amusement that they provide. But there is no way to measure this pleasure, nor any need. All that needs be known, for economic purposes, is how much human idle time they consume, in their production and consumption.

Luxury tools

The division of goods into time-producing tools (needs) and time-wasting luxuries (wants) implies a society which uses tools to make free time for itself, and luxuries to enjoy in that free time - the two kinds of good entirely separated. But the distinction between tools and luxuries can easily become blurred. Instead of simple unadorned tools, there can also be decorated tools - pearl-handled spades, sequinned bags, fashionably cut clothes, haute cuisine food.

Such luxury tools may perform their tasks as well as simple tools, but they must require to more time to make. Thus if their value remains the same, their cost of production is higher. There is an extra cost to add pearl veneer, sew on sequins, cut and sew cloth into frills, or add sauces and spices to some otherwise plain dish.

And then, the more extravagantly decorated the tools become, and the higher their cost of production rises, there must come a point where tool cost of production exceeds tool value, and the tool becomes a time-wasting luxury.

In a society where all tools are decorated or embellished, social idleness must fall. If such a society seems implausible, it should be pointed out that modern cars, which are essentially tools that allow people to move rapidly over long distances, are highly styled in chrome and steel, with on-board stereo systems, cigarette lighters, vanity mirrors, tinted glass, and a host of other extras. And that this trend, of adding extraneous styling, decoration (and packaging), extends to food, drink, clothing, housing, and in fact almost every consumer good.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 9 Oct 1998