Idle Theory Concerning Equality

To what extent is an equality of idleness across society necessary, desirable, or attainable? In the past [1][2], I've argued in favour of an equality of idleness across society. But over time doubts have risen about the attainability or even desirability of equal idleness.

Nevertheless it seems that to the extent that humanity is necessarily engaged in work, it should seek an approximate equality of the distribition of this necessary work. No such expectation of equality need apply to what humans freely choose to do in their idle time.

Arguments for Equality

Equality in a condition of necessity

One argument in favour of equality is that while human survival entails the necessity of work, that work ought to be shared equally. One analogy I use is that of a lifeboat carrying shipwrecked passengers, where all are allotted equal rations of food and water, and all take their turn on the oars and the buckets, regardless of their former station in life. One would not expect such that in such a lifeboat the rich would eat caviare in the stern while the poor chewed dry bread in the bow. And if such an equality is to be expected in a lifeboat, is it not also to be equally expected on the larger 'lifeboat' that is this earth on which humanity toils to maintain itself alive?

Equality in a condition of leisure

Another argument for equality goes to the other extreme, moving from a lifeboat to a dinner party. When the host dishes out each course, will he or she not pass out equal portions to their guests? It would be a strange dinner party, would it not, where some guests were handed plates piled high with food, while others received plates with hardly any food on them at all? Surely the rule of equal portions that applies to a dinner party should also apply to society as a whole?

A Social Contract Presupposes Equality of Outcome

Another argument in favour of a general equality of idleness in society is that where people agree to unite to form a society, as in some social contract, they will do so in expectation of being treated as equals, and of enjoying equal outcomes from their joint venture, or rewards proportionate to their efforts.

For example, where hunters combine together to hunt together in concert, they will do so in expectation of an equal share of the resulting catch, or a share that is proportional to their individual effort. Or, another way, there is no reason to suppose that any one individual is more deserving of a larger share than any other, and, unless good reason can be shown, every reason to treat all equally.

The Weakest Link

A second argument for equality is that any interdependent society is, like a chain, only as strong as its weakest link. And when the weakest link fails, the whole chain breaks, and society comes apart. And in a human society, its weakest link is its least idle member, who will be the first to find his idleness fall to zero, and face death. Accordingly, the strongest society - the one most able to endure hardship - will be the most egalitarian society, in which all members enjoy the same idleness.

Inequality Stifles Invention

In an extreme condition of inequality - for example, where half of a society consists of idle slaveowners and the other half of toiling slaves - the idle slaveowners have the idle time in which to invent labour-saving tools and techniques, but no incentive to do so, because they employ slaves for this purpose. Equally, while the slaves have every incentive to find ways to reduce their work, they have not the idle time in which to invent and perfect labour-saving tools and techniques. The result is technological stasis. In ancient Greece, idle slaveowners created great art and literature and architecture, but produced little in the way of technological innovation. In this manner inequality stifles innovation.

Harmonious Equality

A broad equality of idleness should also act to minimize envy and social conflict within a society. While societies are broadly equal, there will be little resentment or jealousy

Just Prices

In a simple trading system, it can be shown that there is a set of just prices which produce an equality of idleness across society. Since one of these sets occurs when prices are set at costs of production, it follows that where manufacturers compete in selling goods (useful tools), and prices are driven down towards costs, an approximate equality of idleness will result. Thus the normal operation of a trading system should produce equality. Inequalities will generally appear when new goods appear in the market from monopoly producers who, without competition, are able to push up the price of these goods towards their value.

These various arguments above combine to make a case for human societies in which there is an equality of idleness. They are not arguments in favour of any further equality beyond that of idleness: if, for example, in a 50% idle society, some 50% idle members use their idle time to make and trade amusements and luxuries, while the other 50% idle members do nothing in their idle time, then the latter can have no claim upon the material wealth - the amusements and luxuries - produced by the former. For the latter to do so would be to enjoy both their leisure and the products of other people's leisure activities. Much the same applies to games like football that people play in their idle time: there can be no expectation of an equality of outcome, with every game a draw, because such games are devised as contests in which there are intended to be winners and losers.

Arguments against Equality

Was there a Social Contract?

One counter-argument to the suggestion that any social contract entails an expectation of equality might be that there is no reason to suppose that human societies arose out of any social contract. It may well be that sometimes they did. But also it is entirely possible that human societies are self-organising, and emerge spontaneously out of the actions of individuals, rather than from some grand plan.

For example, when people go to a beach to swim or sunbathe, they will usually put down a few possessions - a towel, a sunshade, a windbreak - on some spot. And others, as they arrive, will do the same. And as the beach becomes more and more crowded, people will take up the available space remaining, leaving only a few paths. None of this happens according to any plan. Nobody marks out allotments for new arrivals. Nobody sets out paths between them. The bathers do not convene any assembly to discuss and agree - in a social contract - the planning and organisation and administration of the beach. If paths appear, it will be where people tend to walk in numbers, and bathers adjacent to these paths will tend to shift away from them so as to minimize being trampled underfoot. And if football or handball games are played in some area, adjacent bathers will move away in order to minimize being struck by bouncing beach balls. Beaches filled with bathers are self-organising systems, having no overall plan, which emerge from the interactions of individuals with each other as they sunbathe, walk around, or play games. Beach societies are a form of human society which emerges quite spontaneously. And what applies to beaches may well also apply to every kind of human social organisation.

And if human societies can emerge spontaneously, unplanned, through interaction of individuals, then in such cases there is no sort of 'social contract', and no sort of expectation of equal shares, equal outcomes. And if human societies emerge in this manner, how can there be any expectation of equality if none was agreed upon beforehand? And on self-organising beaches, where each bather has his own area, some of these areas will be larger than others, and new arrivals will squeeze in where they can into yet smaller areas, and so there is no strict equality on beaches.

The Weakest Link

And in respect of the argument of the weakest link, it might be suggested that what is being demanded is not so much the most perfect social equality, but instead some sort of safety net to ensure that no member becomes utterly destitute. Rather than arranging a perfect equality of idleness across society, there should instead simply be provision made to aid those most in need, at the zero-idleness threshold of death. In practice, in the least idle societies, this will result in a de facto equality of idleness across society. But in more idle societies, inequalities of idleness will remain.

If social equality is necessary on a lifeboat filled with shipwrecked sailors, this is because, regardless of their former estate, all now share the same dire circumstance of necessity, and all must spend almost all their time rowing, bailing, fishing, and so on. In this condition of low idleness, all must work most of the time, and in so doing they are equally busy. When they at last step ashore and resume their former lives, they will return to a generally more idle and secure existence - unless life is as hard on shore as it is out in an open boat on the ocean - ,and this more idle condition allows inequality to rise. Equality, and very often the strictest equality, is really only necessary in low idleness societies (such as a lifeboat). It becomes increasingly unnecessary when human social idleness rises.

Equality Stifles Invention

If the idleness of any human society is a fixed constant, then any gain in idleness by one member will be paid for by a fall in idleness of other members. But human idleness is a variable, not a constant: in times of hardship idleness falls, and in times of abundance idleness rises. And humans can increase (or decrease) their idleness through their own invention.

Let us imagine a society in which idleness is distributed equally across it, so that all its members enjoy an idleness of 60%. Let us further suppose that one of its members has the daily task of picking fruit from trees in an orchard, which is usually done by climbing up them and picking the fruit from the branches. Let us suppose that this individual thinks up a new way of picking the fruit, using a long pole to dislodge the fruit while standing on the ground. And let us further suppose that this method results in fruit being collected twice as quickly, or in half the time. The fruit collecter will now find that instead of working 40% of the time, he only works half that - 20% -, and his idleness has risen from 60% to 80%. But, assuming that his new method of collecting fruit has no effect on anyone else, the idleness of the other members remains unchanged at 60%. And so what was an equal society, with everyone 60% idle, has now become an unequal society, in which one individual is more idle than anyone else. Should the gain in idleness of the fruit-picker be redistributed equally throughout the society of which he is a member? Or should he be allowed to enjoy the rewards of his inventiveness?

In a strictly egalitarian society, in which an equality of idleness is regarded as an imperative, the fruit-picker's gain in idleness would be redistributed equally across the whole of society, so that everybody gained from it. In a 100-member society, the 20% - one fifth of a day - increase in his idleness would become a 0.2% rise in idleness - less than 3 minutes a day - of the whole 100-member society. And the fruit-picker would find that instead of his idleness rising from 60% to 80%, it only rises from 60% to 60.2%.

And if it took him a lot of trial and error, hours of trying out different poles to dislodge the fruit from the trees, would this small gain of 0.2% idleness be a sufficent reward to offset against his innovative effort? If he makes a large effort but wins only a small reward, he has become less idle rather than more idle: he is worse off for being so inventive. And so is it not likely that an egalitarian society would act as a brake upon innovation, because whatever the benefits in increased idleness any invention might bring, these benefits would be immediately taken from the inventor and dispersed across society?

The Cost of Equality

In an egalitarian society, in which someone like this fruit-picker upsets equality with his inventions, there will be a continual need to redistribute gains (and losses) throughout society. But unless this redistribution happens automatically - which it will not - then some sort of effort will have to be made to redistribute these gains. And this redistributive work entails extra effort, perhaps by some bureaucracy which assigns work and production targets to members of society. The inventive fruit-collecter would be re-assigned by these bureaucrats to clear drains. But this extra bureaucratic work must entail a fall in social idleness. If the cost, in bureaucratic work, of redistributing some small gain exceeds that gain, then what would be a small gain in idleness in a non-egalitarian society would, in an egalitarian society, once the redistributive extra work had been added in, become a net loss of idleness . So an egalitarian and bureaucratic society may often find its idleness falling. And if the efforts of such a redistributive bureaucracy result in everyone being equally worse off (less idle), it would be better for all concerned if these bureaucracies did nothing, and allowed everyone to be unequally better off than equally worse off.

Or, to put it at its simplest, increased equality is only purchased with decreased idleness. Which matters more: idleness or equality?

The Transience of Human Society

An equality of idleness is only likely to ever be found where social idleness is 0 or 1. A perfectly idle society is one in which everyone is 100% idle, and by definition equal. And a completely busy society is one in which the idleness of all its members is zero, and once again equal. In between, there will be a greater or lesser degree of natural inequality. Human societies do not have fixed idleness, and their idleness falls with decay and wear and natural disaster, and rises through innovation and invention, and has a long-term eventual destination at either perfect or zero idleness. In the end, everyone will be equal. All that is needed is patience.

From this long term perspective, any particular human society appears as a transient non-equilibrium process rather than a fixed, static equilibrium. And to try to impose equality upon a non-equilibrium process is like trying to calm the waves on a stormy sea: it is better to wait for the process to be concluded, for the storm to pass.

Inventive modern Western society is continually producing new tools and methods and understandings which act to raise human idleness. Where such tools are produced by monopolies, the rewards of such innovation mostly goes to the inventors and manufacturers and distributors, resulting in an unequal distribution of wealth in society. But where such monopolies are eventually broken down, and free competition allowed, prices fall, and the consequence is a more equal distribution of the benefits. The wealth of any entrepreneur or innovator is thus temporary in nature. Inequality in innovative societies is the precursor to a general increase in wealth for the whole society - in exactly the same way that the first ladle of soup dished out in a canteen is the precursor to the rest which will feed the whole queue.


A natural equality of idleness is only likely to ever be achieved in the least idle or the most idle societies. In a 0% idle society, all its members will of necessity be working continuously. In a 100% idle society, nobody will ever do any necessary work. But in a 50% idle society, it is entirely plausible that half of its members will be working nearly continuously, and half will live largely idle lives. Thus inequalities of idleness are to be expected in societies of an intermediate idleness [more]. These inequalities may be very great.

If an attempt is made to enforce equality, this will only be attained by reducing idleness - if only because redistribution of idleness will always entail work. And this enforced equality is likely to result in the stifling of enterprise and invention, which go unrewarded. However, it has also been argued that extremes of inequality have the same stifling effect, for different reasons. This suggests that extremes of both inequality and equality should be avoided.

Rather than being an unchanging equilibrium, the human circumstance is a constant process of transition, usually from low idleness to high idleness. It is a long journey over many generations from hardship to ease, from toil to leisure. Attempts to straitjacket this process with demands for equality will very result in the slowing or halting of growth in social idleness. While an initial condition of low idleness will be one of equality, and the terminal condition of high idleness will also be one of equality, the transition from one to the other will always entail some degree of inequality. While an approximate equality of idleness remains desirable, it cannot be regarded as imperative.

If it is taken that in the remote past human societies were often very busy, it is probably the case that they were also perforce egalitarian. It was only when, as a consequence of innovation and invention, human social idleness rose, that inequalities began to appear. First a few individuals became much more idle than others - elders, holy men, kings -. And as social idleness continued rising, these few individuals multiplied to become an entire class of aristocrats and monks. To them were then added other innovators and entrepreneurs. And this brought envy and division in society, which resulted in redistributive revolutions - subsequent to which inequality again gradually emerged. As the idleness of human society continues to rise, however, the likelihood is that an equality of wealth will begin to emerge that mirrors the equality of busy primitive societies. Just as in relatively busy societies there will be a few egregious examples of extreme wealth, in the most idle societies there will always be a few egregious examples of extreme poverty - and the sight of a beggar will attract curious throngs just as once the progress of kings brought out crowds to follow them  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: Aug 2008