IdleTheory Concerning Equality of Idleness

The shared human endeavour to increase idleness, to advance from a condition of toil to one of leisure, is like the journey of a ship's lifeboat across a stormy sea towards land. Aboard that lifeboat, all must pull equally on the oars, or tend the sails, or watch the horizon. All should share equally in what food and water is available. All should maintain discipline and forebearance, and obey the boat's captain. Anyone who takes more than his share, or shirks his duties, may expect to find himself tossed overboard and left to fend for himself.

But if and when that lifeboat reaches some paradise island, and the boat is hauled up its sandy beach, and the crew disperse to collect is abundant fruits and nuts, and to drink crystal water from its limpid streams, the absolute necessity of strict discipline and equal shares vanishes. When life has become leisure, men can do what they please.

If the circumstance of of the storm-tossed lifeboat is one of great difficulty, and low idleness, then the paradise island provides a circumstance of ease and high idleness. And so equality is a requirement at low idleness, but not at high idleness.

Measuring equality and inequality

While idleness is measured from a minimum of 0 to a maximum of 1 or 100%, there isn't a measure of equality or inequality.

However, given some number of individuals, and an equal number of goods to distribute among them, the most equal distribution is where they all each have one good. And the most unequal distribution is where any one individual has all goods, while the others have none.

Thus with 16 individuals, and 16 goods, maximum equality is where all 16 individuals have one good, and maximum inequality is where one individual has all 16 goods. Various degrees of inequality in between might be shown as 8 people having 2 goods each, 4 people having 4 goods each, and 2 people having 8 goods each, and the others possessing none. The curve that this produces is a hyperbola, where

x . y = k

such that when x = 1, y = k. And where x = k, y = 1.

Dividing by k, where k is large 1 > y > 0, where y is degree of inequality. In this manner one arrives at a measure of inequality which ranges from 1 to 0, or a measure of equality which ranges from 0 to 1, much the same as idleness.

Here, in principle at least, is a measure of a degree of inequality, although it isn't entirely clear how it may be used to calculate the degree of inequality where there are 16 people, and 16 goods, and one person has 7 of them, another has 5, and a further 4 individuals have one good each, and the rest have none.

Idleness versus Equality

In human society, whose shared goal is that of increased leisure or idleness, such leisure as is available should be, as far as possible, shared equally. For if it is not, and some people lead lives of complete leisure, while others toil all the days of their life, then the former gain all the benefits of human society, and the latter gain none. In such an inegalitarian society, it is only to be expected if those that toil should either depart to set up some more equal form of society, or overthrow the system of society and require an equal distribution of leisure. Such inegalitarian societies can only be maintained by force, with the workers chained and bound as slaves for their idle masters. And what is held together by force must always be more likely to disintegrate than what is held together by common consent.

If the purpose and value of human society is the increase of leisure, then every member of society has an equal claim on that leisure. No one individual's time is inherently more valuable than that of any other, whatever their position or status in society.

However, a perfectly equal distribution of idleness is probably only attainable when a society achieves either a condition of zero idleness, when everyone is always working, or a condition of complete idleness, when everyone is always idle. In between, there is always likely to be some degree of inequality.

For example, someone who invents some new and useful tool, whose use results in a general increase in social idleness, arguably ought to be rewarded for their invention and application according to the value of their contribution. And if people are rewarded for their invention, this should act as an incentive for people to innovate and invent. But such rewards for invention and innovation must necessarily result in a temporary inequality within society, with the inventors and manufacturers and distributors of useful new tools leading idler lives than the rest of society.

And therefore perfect equality is always likely to be an elusive goal, an ideal that is never fully realized.

Thus, in Idle Theory, the principal goal must be to increase social idleness, and only secondarily to distribute such idleness equally across society. Inequality must be temporarily permitted. And it might be suggested that if there are two equal goals, increased idleness and equality of idleness, then contention must arise between these goals, and one must be set a higher priority than the other.

If one sets greater store over equality than idleness, then the operation of justice within society must simply consist in redistributing idleness equally. Thus if someone thinks of a way of doing his own work more quickly, such that he is temporarily idler than everyone else, society will demand that his small gain in idleness be redistributed across society, such that an increase of idleness of idleness of an hour a week becomes reduced to a few seconds a week. Clearly there is no incentive in such a society for any individual to think of ways of reducing his work, because no sooner has he dones so than his small gains will be almost entirely taken from him.

But equally, if social equality is paramount, then if anyone loses idle time through loss or accident, then society will require everyone else's idleness to be reduced in order to almost entirely compensate his loss. In such a circumstance, where any loss will be compensated, there is little incentive for anyone to take care of themselves or their possessions, as they ordinarily would.

ANd furthermore, would there not be a need for some bureaucracy which measured everyone's idleness, and redistributed it? And would such a bureaucracy in itself be a burden upon society, reducing its idleness?

Thus a requirement for strict equality across society would seem to result in a bureaucratic overburden, and in their being little incentive for idleness-increasing innovation, and little incentive for care to prevent idleness-reducing lossess or injuries - and that in such societies idleness would gradually decrease, and society would eventually disintegrate.

So it might be said that a requirement for strict equality is most likely to have adverse effects on social idleness. All will be equal, but equally poor. It would be better to allow inequality, so as to provide an incentive for people to innovate and increase personal idleness, and to take care to avoid personal losses of idleness. And in allowing inequality, the requirement for a redistributive bureaucracy would vanish, the loss of which would result in an increase of social idleness.

The requirement for strict equality would then only apply when social idleness fell to such levels that the lives of some of the least idle members of society was under threat. On a lifeboat on an ocean, or during wartime, or in some other emergency, it is reasonable to ensure that what little is available is distributed equally. That is, the requirement for strict equality applies during during social emergencies, but not otherwise. The higher the idleness of any society, the less of an emergency it faces, and the less the need for equality.

No Equality in Idle Time

But while it is to expected, as far as possible, for idleness to be equally distributed, because it is the shared common goal of society, it does not follow that what people do or make in their idle time should also be equally shared.

If in his idle time a man makes a feather hat for himself, there is nothing that says that he should make feather hats for everyone. Or if, in his idle time, a man brews himself a keg of beer, there is nothing that says that he should give everyone else a cup of it. And if the one sets up a hat shop selling feather hats, and the other sets up a brewery selling beer, there is nothing that says that the profit they make from these ventures should be equally distributed across society.

Food and drink, shelter and clothing, and all the other necessities of life that provide men with leisure are what need to be equally distributed. But feather hats and beer and music and art and literature are luxuries that men can live without, and there is consequently no requirement that such luxuries be distributed as equally as idle time.

Therefore in an idle society, in which some people choose to while away their idle hours asleep or at play, while others apply themselves industriously to making and selling luxuries and amusements of one sort or another, will be one in which apparent disparities of wealth arise. But the real wealth of society is its idleness, in which all have an equal share, and all the various luxuries and amusements that men invent are the product of idleness: if there is no idleness, there can be no luxury.

Men are legitimately wealthy to the extent that they trade profitably in luxuries and amusements. And they are illegitimately wealthy to the extent that they trade profitably in the necessities of life. And this is because nobody ever needs to buy luxuries like feather hats or bottles of beer: they buy these things because they want them. But people need to buy such necessities as food and drink, shelter and clothing, and anyone who makes a fortune from trading in necessities does so at the necessary and unavoidable expense of the rest of society.

And equally there is nothing apart from idleness that everyone will regard as desirable wealth. For while many people may desire to live in a large house surrounded by a huge garden, many others may prefer a small house with no garden at all. And while some people may want swimming pools, non-swimmers are unlikely to want such items. And while some people may want a private jet, those who dislike flying will prefer some other means of transportation. There is ultimately nothing that says that a large house is better than a small house, any more than a large pair of trousers is better than a small pair of trousers. And equally there is nothing that says that smoked salmon and caviare are better than dry bread and porridge. Material wealth may take an infinite variety of forms, and none of them are any more inherently valuable or worthwhile than any other.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: June 2004
Last edited: July 2006