Idle Theory

Ship of Fools.

Hanging in and holding fast
Hope our little world will last.

Conventional economic theory supposes that once basic human needs (not that economic theory recognizes "needs") - for food, shelter, etc - are met, there emerges a desire for toys and trinkets of various sorts, perhaps to relieve the tedium of mere existence. And this desire for superfluous wealth, for "the good things in life", is generally regarded as being inherent in human psychology, indeed in human nature. People are never satisfied, we are told. According to this conventional wisdom, a "divine discontent" urges them continually to seek more.

But there is perhaps another explanation for the peculiarly urgent desire to acquire wealth which is so manifest throughout human history. And it is that, in inegalitarian societies, the alternative to extreme wealth is not mere tedious leisure, but rather dire poverty, toil, disease, and early death. The desire for wealth is nothing but the other face of the desire to escape from abject poverty. It is not that the rich desire riches, but rather that they dread poverty. And if the pursuit of wealth has always been a constant in human nature, it is because poverty and inequality have always been constants in human society.

In Idle Theory, an egalitarian society is one whose members are more or less equally idle or leisured. In such a society, it does not disturb social equality if some people choose to busy themselves in their idle time manufacturing and trading toys and amusements (and thereby become "richer" than others), while others prefer simply to talk or sleep.

Human society, in its interdependence, may be compared to a ship. A host of skilled designers and craftsmen act in concert to build it, and its crew act in concert to keep it afloat and on course. The lives of all aboard, captain and deckhand, passengers and crew, young and old, are bound up together. If the ship sinks, they all go down together. The Titanic was a metaphor for interdependent human society, and its sinking the disintegration of society into a mass of individuals, most of them drowning.

Social Equity: The ship balanced

An egalitarian society may be compared to a ship that floats on an even keel, such that all aboard are on about the same level, safe from drowning.

RMS Titanic on even keel

Aboard such a ship, steaming across the water, one would not expect to find a general state of alarm or despair, but instead the crew about their work, and passengers ambling to and fro upon its decks, playing games, or sunning themselves on deck chairs. And indeed this should be expected even if the cabins on the upper decks were larger and more exquisitely furnished than those on the lower decks.

Of course one need not suppose that everybody aboard such a ship would be blissfully happy. The Peaches in Chartreuse Jelly served in the First Class restaurant might be a little too heavy for some delicate stomachs. And a boy from the steerage might pine after a girl in the first class cabins. And one or two officers might worry that the ship proceeds too fast in iceberg infested waters. But, even with these small defects, one would not expect to find the passengers and crew to all running at the same time to the stern of the ship, or sinking to their knees in prayer, or drinking themselves into oblivion. And if they did, one might seek the advice of a Sigmund Freud or some other psychologist to explain their otherwise inexplicable behaviour.

One might add that ships are normally kept balanced on an even keel, and are legally required to be so before they set to sea. Nobody in their right mind, rich or poor, would embark on some voyage aboard a listing ship half full of water. Would Ismay, Guggenheim, and Molly Brown have cheerfully boarded a Titanic whose bow was sunk below the water, even before it had left harbour? No.

Social Inequity: the ship unbalanced

If an egalitarian society may be compared to a ship on an even keel, an inegalitarian society may be compared to a ship capsized. Let us suppose that the ship strikes an iceberg, and sinks at the bow.

RMS Titanic sinking

Upon such a ship, the passengers desire to move to the stern of the ship. This desire does not derive from any peculiar merit of the stern deck, or any irrational subconscious urge, but is nothing other than a natural and rational wish to escape drowning in the flooded bow. Upon such a ship, the natural tendency of everybody is to climb the sloping decks to their highest point above water. There is a natural "upward mobility" from bow to stern, a desire to "improve one's prospects" of survival, or "go up in the world", that manifests itself in a general sternward movement.

And further there may be no reason to suppose that the stern deck would be capacious enough to carry all the passengers and crew. Once completely full - of people who happened to be there from the beginning, or who were near, or who ran quickly from the bow -, latecomers might be denied access, and forced to stand with water rising up to their waists or necks.

Nor need one suppose that such motion would be orderly. A panic might break out. And in the rush to reach the stern, men might trample over each other, and the weak and the old and the sick get left behind. Pitched battles might even break out as men fought their way up the sloping decks.

For those trapped in the internal cabins or corridors of a listing ship, with no prospect of rescue or escape, there can be no surprise if they use whatever means available to render themselves insensible to their grim fate, with sedatives, with alcohol, with any drug they can find. Or again, in the face of death, the act of love offers a powerful re-affirmation of life. And yet again, some might even commit suicide rather than face the prospect of slow death as the water inches up around them.

And if those people who manage to reach the stern somehow remain dissatisfied with their condition, and despite their good fortune remain "divinely discontented", and pace about in agitation, it is simply because being aboard such a capsized ship is a highly distressing experience, even for those who are relatively safe. The people at the bows are clearly either dead or in deep distress - but those at the stern can hardly be described as happy, contented, and fulfilled.

Aboard such a ship, two impulses would contend in its captain's mind. The first - and socially responsible - impulse would be to try to stabilize the ship, seal the torn hull, pump out the water, regain an even keel, and thus save everyone. The other impulse would be to cease to fight such a futile battle, let the inevitable happen (laisser faire), and abandon ship, and leave each one to save himself as best he can (sauve qui peut) on makeshift raft or lifeboat, in full knowledge that many would not survive.

And if, all the while, the ship launched rockets and flares like prayers for some saviour ship to steam toward them, and sent SOS (Save Our Souls) messages on its radio transmitter, would this be surprising?

One does not need the psychology of Sigmund Freud to understand the behaviour the passengers and crew aboard such a ship - because in all cases they are perfectly rational.


The desire for wealth in unequal society.

In an inequitable society, those toiling to keep their heads above water at the bow of the ship are the poor, and those sat high and dry at the stern are the rich. In Idle Theory, true wealth is idleness or leisure, and true poverty is work or toil. In an unequal society, some are more idle than others. It is not difficult to create an unequal society: simply set the price of tools high, and the price of labour low, and the idle rich and the toiling poor will automatically appear.

Just as the desire to reach the safety of the stern grows from a wish to escape drowning, so the desire for wealth grows from the dread of poverty. By wealth is meant idleness, shelter, food, health, and longevity. And by poverty is meant toil, homelessness, starvation, disease, and ultimately death. If men seek to be rich, it is because of the relative safety from such a fate that wealth provides. Nothing motivates a man more to engage in social climbing, by fair means or foul, up the sloping decks of the ship of society than the knowledge that failure will entail suffering and death. And nothing serves better to re-enforce this dread than the visible presence of paupers, beggars, and cripples on every street.

The depth of the dread of poverty is the measure of the intensity of the desire for wealth. Those who flee furthest from poverty are forever trying to put as much distance between themselves and that grim state, even to the point of retiring into vast estates and huge mansions from whose windows no beggar or pauper is visible. The ultimate purpose of conventional wealth is to shut out the grim reality of the world, to create a replica of paradise from which poverty and suffering and toil has been dispelled, or at least made invisible with curtains and walls and hedges. But no amount of wealth can ever entirely dispel the knowledge of the suffering of the world beyond the walls of the dream home. For ultimately rich and poor both share the same Titanic, and even the richest of men know that they can never quite escape the common condition of humanity. And this is why even multi-millionaires are forever seeking to become even more pointlessly rich.

Conventionally, wealth consists of material things. The dream home, fitted with upholstered furniture, deep pile carpets, decorated with expensive paintings, tapestries, and sculptures, consists of material objects. Equally material is the stable of horses, the tennis court, the yacht, and the garage filled with antique fast cars, and the landscaped lawns rolling to the distant horizon. Yet implicit in these things is the supposition that their owners will in fact lounge upon the beds and chairs, and gaze upon the paintings and sculptures, ride the horses, play games of tennis, sail their yachts, speed in their cars, and stroll on the lawns. Thus all these material things are the accoutrements of leisure. It would be futile to own all these things, yet not have the leisure to enjoy them.

Yet there may also be a little practicality to wealth. The paintings and sculptures may also be investments: if life gets tough, one sells the Raphael or the Picasso. And the propensity of the rich to acquire old technology - horses, sailing ships, etc - may reflect a distrust of modern technology. If the oil runs out, there are horses and sailing boats. If water runs out, there is always the swimming pool. If food runs out, then the rolling lawns can be ploughed up and planted. Such wealth is akin to owning a modest lifeboat. One day one might need the catamaran to flee across the oceans to the other side of the world.

(Perhaps what drives the space race, that so-called "outward urge" towards the stars, is not any adventurous spirit, but rather a desperate wish to escape this dismal planet.)

If the desire for wealth is simply the other face of the fear of poverty, then such a desire will only appear in inegalitarian societies in which one part of society is idle and safe, and another part is struggling in peril. If the ship of society were repaired, and the water pumped out from its flooded bows, so that it was raised onto an even keel, there would no longer be any rush for the stern. It is only when the ship of human society is canted over at an angle that there is a natural tendency to stampede from one end to the other.

It is not that men have any natural propensity to enrich themselves, but rather that circumstances of profound inequity, and the prospect of dire poverty, drive them to escape such a fate. If a desire for wealth appears everywhere and always to be normal, it is because human societies have always normally been unequal, and the ship of society has always and everywhere been capsized.


The Desire for Oblivion in unequal society.

The desire for wealth, for great wealth, and even for fabulous wealth, is driven by an intense desire to escape poverty. But, in the nature of things, relatively few people can escape this way. For the greater part of humanity, escape is sought in simpler ways.

Holidays are a form of escapism. After all, if people did not work, they would not need holidays in order "to get away from it all" - where "it all" is the daily round of toil.

Television and movies are another form of escapism. The tired worker becomes engrossed in a fantasy world, in which everyone and everything is brighter and better and more beautiful. For a while one is "taken out of oneself". This can lead to attempted identification with the fantasy world - and to slimming, exercise, and other attempts to make reality match fantasy. Advertisments and commercials are usually blamed for offering some fantasy. It is not true: the feature films between do it much better.

Drugs and alcohol offer another escape, an oblivion in which drab reality is suspended for a few hours. And they offer the cheapest way out. And suicide offers final escape.


Compensatory consumption in unequal society

Equally, one may suppose that in unequal societies, men and women do not work in order to buy consumer goods, but buy consumer goods to compensate for the fact that they work. Employed at work for 5 or 6 days a week, the weekend becomes a time to indulge in every pleasure, eating, drinking, consuming to excess.

In another analogy, a consumer may be compared to a prisoner in a cell. Unable to escape it, he responds by trying to improve the cell, adding carpets, paintings, TVs, stereos, soft beds, to make it seem less like a prison cell. But no amount of silk or brocade can ever really conceal its true nature.


The search for fulfilling work

Another escapist route is to try to find fulfillment in work itself. If there is no escape from work, then one alternative is to make the best of it, to try to find employment that is undemanding, or remunerative, or otherwise rewarding.

Yet this requires considerable self-deception: nothing less than the pretence that one actually wants to do what one must do. As if a prisoner in a cell were to convince himself that prison life was everything he desired, or a hospital patient that cancer was some sort of perk or bonus, or that to be a passenger on a sinking ship a blessing.


Social disintegration: The Ship Sinks.

RMS Titanic sinks When a ship is listing in the water, the bow sunk and the stern raised, it is all too often the prelude to the foundering of the entire ship. And then, as the ship finally sinks, the rich on the stern rapidly get poor, and find themselves also struggling and drowning. Their efforts to climb the greasy pole of the stern flagstaff does not save them, but serves merely to delay their fate - and give them a grandstand view of the entire hideous process.

When a ship sinks, the entire command structure collapses, and it is "Every man for himself" or "Sauve qui peut." This represents the ultimate breakdown of society. The crew cease to work together for the welfare of the ship, but try individually to save themselves.

And in Idle Theory, such an outcome is entirely possible. Where the goal of an economy ceases to be one of maximizing idleness, and distributing it equally, it is all too likely that social idleness will be falling rather than rising, with toil and trouble, rush and hurry, increasing rather than diminishing. At some point, in the lowest strata of society, the struggle to survive becomes impossible. And when this stratum collapses, the next one up soon follows, in a succession of collapses, the water overflowing one bulkhead after another.


Thoughts Bubble Up.

It is not that there is inequality because men seek wealth, but that men seek wealth because there is inequality. It is not that men work to buy amusements and luxuries, but that they buy amusements and luxuries because they work.

The conventional wisdom has it the other way around, of course. But it has always been the idle rich who have defined the conventional wisdom - if only because the toiling poor have not the leisure to contradict them. But since the rich always construct utopias for themselves, insulated from unpleasant reality, their philosophical constructions are always tainted with utopian unreality. The rich convince themselves that the fantasy world they have constructed around themselves corresponds with ordinary everyday reality, and that this is the best of all possible worlds, and every man, from shepherd to shift worker, is as leisured as a Guggenheim.

Conventional economic theory, whose rosy vision assumes a general condition of idleness from which enterprising and dynamic individuals rouse themselves to productive action, locates the impulse to such activity in the irrational recesses of the human psyche. For that leisured parson Thomas Malthus, it was the prickings of cold and hunger that energized otherwise inert and indolent men, and inspired them to the heights of creative effort such as exemplified by Newton or Locke. And indeed, if the condition of humankind was one of such general leisure, there would be no other way to account for human enterprise and initiative. But such leisure exists only in the minds of these economic theorists, not in the toiling real world, in which a general state of leisure, far from being the datum of economic life, is in reality the goal of economic development. Once human life is understood as being for the most part a life of toil in an unequal society, there is no need to explore the human psyche for irrational, subconscious motivations for wealth, for status, for consumption, for escapism, for oblivion, for crime.

The intensity of the desire for wealth is directly proportional to the intensity of the dread of poverty and toil in an unequal society. Since all human societies are unequal, the desire for wealth and its attendant relative security is found in every society. Nobody really wants to own a majestic pile set in a rural paradise: everybody wants to escape its alternative - cold and hunger, disease and death. And the demand for a great many goods such as movies, novels, alcohol, drugs, even tourism, does not arise from any inherent desire for these things, but from the desire to briefly forget and escape the ubiquity of toil. In the evening or at the weekend, the tired drone wants some cheap thrill to compensate for all those hours of numbing work.

"And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families."
(Margaret Thatcher. Woman's Own, 3 October 1987)

It very curious that the inequity or imbalance that would not be tolerated in a ship is almost everywhere accepted in human society, and even advocated as a beneficial state of affairs. The desire for wealth is applauded as admirable, and laissez faire economics - "Sauve qui peut" - is held to be the desirable method of running human society, while the desire for social equity is derided as unrealistic, or socialist, or even communist in its aspiration. Yet "Every man for himself" is the last command issued on a sinking ship, before its social order disintegrates into a mass of struggling individuals.

Yet there is perhaps a simple explanation for such complacency, and it is that ship of society has been capsized for so long that the condition is accepted as normal, natural, perhaps even traditional. Anything else is unimaginable, and therefore impossible.

Perhaps the advocacy of laissez-faire social and economic policies is the result of a rational judgement upon the state of the ship of society: that it must be abandoned, or has long since sunk, and it is every man for himself. Equally, the advocacy of social order represents the opposite judgement: that the ship of society still floats, and can yet be saved. It is a practical judgement, exactly the same as that faced by Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay aboard the Titanic one April night in 1912.

Footnote 2008

While it still seems to me important that there should be equality in society, I now think that it is more important for a society to raise social idleness than maintain equality.

In part this came of considering a perfectly egalitarian society, in which everyone had a the same relatively low idleness. In this society, one individual might think of some way in which he could increase his idleness in some small way, at no expense to anyone else. Let us suppose that it raised his idleness 5% above that of everyone else. And this creates inequality in that society. And if maintaining equality is of paramount importance, then his personal gain in idleness must be distributed across the whole of society - with the result that everyone's idleness rises fractionally - perhaps by an insensible fraction. The individual who had thought of a way of increasing his own idleness would find that it was almost entirely taken away from him, such that he may as well have not had the idea. It began to seem to me that a demand for a perfect equality in society would result in the cessation of all innovation, and the stagnation of invention. And in the absence of innovation and invention, social idleness would almost certainly fall.

Equally it seemed to me that if justice entailed simply arranging for an equality of idleness, then just as an innovator who raised social idleness would not see the benefit of it, so neither would any malefactor whose misdeeds lowered anyone else's idleness see the full cost of it. Everyone would be made to suffer equally, including him, and this might mean hardly at all. So if in an egalitarian society a benefactor of society would receive no reward, a malefactor would meet with no punishment, and there would be no great incentive for would-be malefactors to desist from their misdeeds. In an egalitarian society, the administration of justice would, furthermore, not entail any careful study, in a trial or inquiry, of the gains and losses accruing from any single action, but instead might merely entail some bureaucratic adjustment to restore broad social equality. None of this seemed to me to constitute justice.

And so I have moved to the view that while equality is desirable, it cannot be paramount. Economic growth is inherently unequal, in that one sector of the economy may be growing in idleness while another part is becoming less idle. Economic growth, the increase in idleness, must in general be have priority over any desire for equality. Too great an inequality in society is an evil, but so also is too great an equality.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
Created: 13 May 2002
Last edited: 26 Feb 2008