Idle Theory Fear of Idleness

In Idle Theory, the state of idleness is the supreme good, and Idle Theory explains human life as seeking a state of idleness.

To the extent that human life is idle rather than busy, to that extent it is also secure, because human idle time provides a buffer or cushion against misfortune - idle societies can set themselves to work in response to disasters or catastrophes. And to the extent that human life is idle, to that extent it is also free - idle people are free people, free to choose what to do with their time. And to the extent that human life is idle, to that extent it is wealthy - for human idle time can be employed in the production of art and music and literature and architecture, and all the many amusements and luxuries of life. And so idleness means security, freedom and wealth. Without idleness, there are none of these. For in the busiest human societies, life is lived on the threshold of death, with little freedom of choice, and devoid of all luxuries and amusements. Rational humans always want to live the most idle - and therefore the most secure, free, and prosperous - lives they possibly can.

In Idle Theory, human society comes into being because humans are generally more idle living inside such societies than outside. Economic growth in such societies is growth in idleness. Moral codes are essentially concerned with the maintenance and even distribution of idleness throughout society. The political structure of societies is determined by their idleness.

In Idle Theory, the state of idleness is not necessarily one of doing nothing. It is simply the state in which doing nothing is an available option. The state of idleness is actually not only the state of being able to do nothing, but also the state of being able to do anything. Busy people live lives that are determined by their business, and because they are determined they are predictable. But idle people who can do nothing - and anything - are completely unpredictable.

In Idle Theory, idleness is a virtue. But in modern Western society, idleness is regarded as a vice. Why does modern Western society fear idleness?

Necessary work left undone

There is at least one real fear of idleness that is recognised in Idle Theory, and that is the fear that, in a 90% idle society, people won't do the 10%-of-their-time work that they need to do to maintain themselves. The easier life gets, the greater the temptation to not bother to do what little work needs to be done. People must keep busy to some extent. Throughout most of human history, according to the Bible, men have had to work six days out of seven to stay alive - an idleness of one seventh, or 0.143. But if human idleness were to rise to 0.99, such that the work of one man could maintain the lives of a hundred men, then if that one man fails to get up one Monday morning, 100 men would die. As human idleness rises, it becomes more and more important that whoever must work actually does work.

If the only choice open to anyone is to be busy all their days, or be idle all their days, they must generally choose to be busy. For if they are idle, and leave necessary work undone, they will soon find themselves lacking the necessities of life, and will not survive long. But if they are busy all the time, they will possess the necessities of life in abundance, and will survive - but never enjoy life. But the choice of being either always busy or always idle is artificial.


But this isn't the only reason why modern Western society demands that people work. Instead, the modern Western work ethic grows not so much from what anyone wants for themselves, but from what they want of others. For more or less anyone, the value of their own lives is measured in their idle time, but the value of other people's lives is measured in the amount of work those people can do for them. Humans are deeply hypocritical in this respect: they prefer to personally live idle lives, but they also prefer that others work diligently on their behalf. They enjoy the convenience and leisure that the baker's bread provides, but they also want the baker to keep busy baking bread. And what applies to the baker also applies to the butcher and the candlestick maker. Every man wants to live a life of leisure, and wants everyone else to work to support him in that life of leisure. Every man wants to be idle, and wants everybody else to be busy. The 'work ethic' is not what anyone imposes on themselves, but what they impose on other people. The 'work ethic' is an expectation that other people will work. If we like to see butchers and bakers busy butchering and baking, it is because we know that they are making pies for us.

Wasted lives

But there is also another motive at work. And that is that that in modern Western society people tend to believe that their lives, however long, are given to them on a plate, and that they must Make Something of those lives, that they must Do Something. In this view of life, every man has 70 or so years to live, and he can either do nothing, or he can Do Something, and thereby make his mark upon history. The very worst of lives is the 'wasted life' in which a man does nothing, and no statue or memorial is erected in memory of them. But, once again, if a life is only valuable to the extent that other people remember and value it, then it is one which is valued by other people. A hero is someone who lives a life which other people than the hero think memorable, and who build a statue or mausoleum for him. Heroes only exist in the eyes of the people who see them, most of whom would prefer not to be heroes themselves. Everyone admires the Spartan heroes of Thermopylae, but nobody wants to have fought and died beside them. Everyone admires the Spitfire pilots of the Battle of Britain, but nobody wants to plunge to earth trapped in a burning airplane.

The principal vice of modern Western society is not that people do what they themselves wish, but what other people hope and expect of them. And since the hope and expectation of other people is that they will heroically lose their lives, they proceed to do exactly that. They win medals for this, and memorials are erected in their names. But they lose their lives in the process. Which would you prefer: to live a long and quiet and unassuming life, or to die young with your name upon some memorial?

The Devil makes work for idle hands

Another source of fear of idleness is one already hinted at, and it grows from the recognition the ability to do nothing is also the ability to do anything. And at least part of this dread lies in the fear that, once emancipated from toil, and free to do as they please, men will use this freedom to engage in every possible vice, and in wholesale murder and rape and arson, and the liberation of humanity from toil will bring about its self-destruction. This is the same dread that attends the release of a murderer from prison after serving out his twenty-year sentence. Has he been rehabilitated? Will he promptly murder again? Should the risk be taken? While humans were kept busy, they were at least kept from getting themselves into trouble. Busy people have little time for mischief.

Underpinning such fears are a number of ancient and largely unquestioned suppositions about human nature. That humans are by nature corrupt and depraved, and require the strongest possible constraints imposed upon them, to prevent restrict their depravity. This is such a pessimistic view of human nature that, if followed through to its logical conclusions, would require that all men live out their lives in close confinement from birth to death, and perhaps even be executed at birth, and the entire human race exterminated. After all, if humans are unique in the natural world for being thus depraved, then surely humanity merits extinction.

In opposition to such pessimism there is a countervailing optimism about human nature, that humans are as capable of love and friendship and altruism and pity and care as they are of hatred and war and murder and torture, and that in some benign circumstance, and perhaps with good education, the benign character of humans might one day emerge and triumph over their more malign character. If humans are made of warped wood, it is because the tree has been bent and twisted by outside forces, not inherently, and would grow straight if freed.

Yet in considering supposedly twisted human nature, the culprits who are fixed upon, and held up for examination, are always a few individual rapists and murderers and child molesters. And yet human armies, commanded by generals, are really nothing but a legions of murderers and vandals. An army is a serial killing machine of such ferocity that it puts any lone killer to shame for the amount of death and destruction it wreaks. But soldiers are not sent to prison: they are awarded medals. It requires an extraordinary hypocrisy to hold up a single serial killer such as Charles Manson as the devil incarnate, but completely ignore the ranks of serial killers in the military bases in Manson's home state of California. Of course, the military will reply that they have no wish to kill anyone unless they have to, and that they only fight wars so as to maintain peace and democracy. But Charles Manson might well have said the same. And what goes for marauding armies also goes for judicial systems: these have judicially murdered far more people than all the individual murderers in history put together.

Unstructured leisure

Leaving aside such fears about human nature, the prospect of a general condition of abundant leisure is also, quite simply, largely beyond human experience. It's something entirely new. For centuries and centuries, men have had little leisure, and really have little or no idea what to do with it. Economist John Maynard Keynes in 1930 wrote:

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes to-day in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me-those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties-to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it to-day, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.
John Maynard Keynes. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. 1930


I think with dread of the readjustment of the habits and instincts of the ordinary man, bred into him for countless generations, which he may be asked to discard within a few decades.

To use the language of to-day-must we not expect a general “nervous breakdown”? We already have a little experience of what I mean -a nervous breakdown of the sort which is already common enough in England and the United States amongst the wives of the well-to-do classes, unfortunate women, many of them, who have been deprived by their wealth of their traditional tasks and occupations--who cannot find it sufficiently amusing, when deprived of the spur of economic necessity, to cook and clean and mend, yet are quite unable to find anything more amusing.

To those who sweat for their daily bread leisure is a longed--for sweet-until they get it.
John Maynard Keynes. Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. 1930

Keynes imagines an extremely rapid transition, which would indeed be extremely disorienting and disturbing. In Idle Theory it is mostly supposed that human idleness rises slowly, and people will have time to adapt and shift their value systems and expectations.

And if cats have successfully managed the transition from being busy predators to idle household pets, is it really too much to expect the same of humans as they shift from a busy to an idle life?

While human working life tends to be ordered and disciplined and hierarchical, human leisure tends not to be. If leisure time is entirely unstructured, the infinite potential of leisure will remain unexpressed. The associated fear of idleness is simply fear of the unknown.

At least Keynes had the honesty to consider the matter. There is no discussion about it now. It is simply taken for granted that people need jobs to provide purpose in their lives. Thus Edward Goldsmith of the Ecologist wrote in 1994:

The seriousness of the situation can only truly be appreciated if we consider that unemployment does not merely mean material deprivation. The atomised societies of industrialism have robbed people of extended family networks and cohesive communities. A job can provide a surrogate social environment and hence a feeling of security, an identity and a goal structure, all of which are psychologically difficult to dispense with. It is not surprising that prolonged unemployment - and some 50 percent of the unemployed in the EC today have been unemployed for over a year - leads to all sorts of social deviations: marital breakdowns, increased alcoholism, drug addiction, delinquency and crime, which provide a new outlet for the energies of those who have no place in the formal economy.
Edward Goldsmith Work! Work! Work!

Goldsmith advocates, in effect, reversing the industrial revolution and recreating a labour-intensive society. An wannabe English Pol Pot, Goldsmith has undergone a massive failure of nerve, and wishes to undo centuries of economic development, and recreate a traditional working society in which most people labour on farms without modern farm machinery - simply to avoid the 'breakdown' of society attendant upon unemployment.

Already Leisured?

Idle Theory's view of human life is foundationally one of a toiling humanity seeking to emancipate itself, and arrive one day at a general condition of leisure and freedom. However, much of Western economic and ethical thought seems to rest upon the assumption - the rosy vision - that humans are already living lives of leisure, and are consequently already perfectly free. According to the Utilitarian neoclassical account, an economy is something in which people forego their leisure to make and sell goods that other people want for the pleasure or satisfaction they gain from them - more or less as if everyone was making and selling boxes of chocolates to each other. Certainly for writers like Thomas Malthus, an economy was something which set people to work to better themselves. While indolent and savage nations had been content to linger in mud huts, ambitious and driving Europeans had constructed a bright, glittering, advanced technical civilization. It was human will that was needed to get otherwise idle people off their backsides to make something of themselves. And the associated work ethic was the expression of this will. Leisure might be seductively pleasant, but the adoption of a leisure ethic could only result in the return to former indolent savagery. What constituted 'improvement' or 'betterment' was an entirely subjective matter, and indeed most of Western thought about values is thoroughly subjective. And there was no end state, no terminus, towards which human development aimed: modern Western civilization would simply continue to become ever more bright and glittering as it set itself new challenges.

There are two variants of this rosy view of human life. The first is that human life is fundamentally, and always has been, a leisured life. Thes second is that human life used once to be busy, but modern technological innovation has now made it leisured.

Idle Theory denies that human life is now or ever has been one of leisure. It consigns trade in pleasurable amusements and luxuries to a secondary economy that may emerge if there is sufficient idle time available to make and enjoy such goods. Idle Theory's primary economy, which increases people's objectively measurable idleness, is the focus of its interest, because it generates the leisure time and freedom of choice which allow secondary economies to come into existence. And there was end state, of perfect idleness, towards which human technical, economic, and moral development aimed. The purpose of an economy, in Idle Theory, is not to set people to work, but to liberate them from work. The so-called 'savages' of tropical Africa might have been able to live largely idle lives - living naked, building simple shelters, and hunting and gathering the natural produce of the land - and so had little or no incentive to improve matters. But Europeans had to wear warm clothes, and live in more substantial heated dwellings, and thus work much harder to survive - which provided a strong incentive for them to innovate so as to increase their idleness. From this perspective, it was not sheer human will that drove European invention, but dire necessity. And necessity drives them still.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: October 2007
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