Idle Theory Hayek and the Road to Serfdom

This essay considers and idly comments upon the opening chapters of Friedrich Hayek's book, The Road to Serfdom (1944).

Hayek in the first chapter writes of the growing abandonment of individualist civilisation in favour of socialism. This liberal individualism entailed the "respect for man qua man, that is the recognition of his own views and tastes as supreme in his own sphere." "Freedom" and "liberty", he writes, are words so worn with use and abuse as to be almost beyond employment. "Tolerance" is perhaps the only word which still preserves the full meaning of the principle that used once to be ascendant, and allowed men to shape their own lives.

Hayek associates the rise of commerce in the 16th century with the freeing of the individual from the ties that had bound him in customary or prescribed pursuits. A marvellous growth of science followed the march of individual liberty. As also did invention and industrialism. "Wherever the barriers to the free exercise of human ingenuity were removed man became rapidly able to satisfy ever-widening ranges of desire." And although he recognizes that not everything was perfect, "by the beginning of the early twentieth century the working man in the Western world had reached a degree of material comfort, security, and personal independence which a hundred years earlier had seemed scarcely possible."

None of this runs counter to Idle Theory. Idle Theory is highly individualistic, at least in the sense that its notion of freedom is one of individual freedom. In Idle Theory, man does not exist for the state, but the state for man. Human society is primarily a means whereby individual human idleness and freedom and prosperity is raised. Commerce, or trade, transports useful tools - like flint axes - and materials between people, and the use of these tools serves to increase their idleness. This increase in idleness gave men the leisure time in which to study the natural world in which they found themselves, and, using the scientific principles they discovered, to construct new materials and machines and tools, which in turn served to raise social idleness still further.

But for Hayek it was primarily the liberation of the individual from the coercive feudal bondage that released all the invention and imagination and enterprise of humanity, and brought an explosion of commerce, science, technology, and industry.

Hayek then sketches the decline of this individualistic liberalism, that had come to be regarded as embodying selfishness and egotism. Its rate of progress was far too slow. And the laissez-faire principles which had made this progress possible came to be regarded as obstacles to speedier progress. It came to be widely accepted that further advance could not proceed along the prior liberal model, but only by the complete remodelling of society.

Planning and competition

This Hayek rejects. He rejects planned large scale industry. It might seem that anything that is planned must necessarily function better than what is grows unplanned organically. Yet - and Hayek does not seem to argue the following - this is how the natural world of plants and animals evolves, without central direction, and without a designer. An economic system made up different companies is, in many ways, much like a natural world of plants and animals, some large, some small. It is quite plausible to suppose that where a society makes and trades some fixed range of goods, that economies of scale will allow them to be made at the lowest costs, and that large companies are much like large plants or animals. But when it comes to innovation, it is always going to be individuals who have new ideas, and in large companies such new ideas will only be acted upon if colleagues and managers see the merit of these ideas. In a large company, a number of people have to be persuaded before action is taken. An individual acting on his own initiative is always going to be quicker to act on new ideas than a large company, and so small companies will generally spearhead innovative thinking. When an innovative new product appears, it will be larger companies which put them into large scale production, and produce modestly innovative variations on the theme. The evolution from small comapany to large company is probably for the most part determined by the scale of production required. It may well be a matter of planning to scale up production from a small workshop to a large production line. But if it is individuals who have new ideas, and who dream up new products, it follows that these ideas will occur to almost anybody, at any time, spontaneously and entirely unplanned. There can be no planning for invention and imagination. Planning, if it is appropriate in any circumstance, can only work with a pre-existing set of ideas and products. Planning, and in particular central planning, may well result in the efficient production of an existing range of goods, but it will suffocate nearly all innovation. Centrally planned industries, however efficient, are therefore always going to be stagnant industries, which keep on producing a more or less fixed range of products, all imagination and invention stifled. Industry organised on a competitive small scale may be less efficient at cutting production costs, but will make up for this by being highly innovative, and bringing better products to the marketplace. A planned industrial system will never be an innovative system, and it will be overtaken by innovative small industries as the industrial system evolves.

If nothing else, nobody knows what new ideas and new products will arise and replace existing ideas and products. It is unlikely that anyone in the 19th century foresaw the automobiles and aircraft and computers of the 20th century. A planned 19th century society would have been planned around horses and carts. A centrally planned neolithic society would have been planned around the central production of flint axes and animal skin clothing. If stone axes were replaced first by bronze axes, and then iron axes, it was probably because a few innovators began idly experimenting with new materials, in the face of indifference and hostility from the well-established, centrally-planned flint axe industry.

The provision of some goods, such as a supply of water, may well best be something appropriate for central planning. Nobody is going to invent any new, improved water. Nor does anyone expect any. In such circumstances there is little purpose in having small, innovative industries. But if water becomes scarce, and its costs of production rise, innovative ways of supplying it may begin to appear. The same also is most likely true of electricity and roads.


This is not the place to discuss how this change in outlook was fostered by the uncritical transfer of the problems of society of habits of thought engendered by the preoccupation with technological problems, the habits of thought of the natural scientist and the engineer, how these at the same time tended to discredit the results of a past study of society which did not conform to their prejudices, and to impose ideals of organisation on a sphere to which they were not appropriate. (Chapter I)

By this Hayek probably meant that as scientists and engineers focused their attention on the political economies of the Western world, individualistic laissez-faire capitalism almost immediately struck them as haphazard and disorganised and inefficient. If the fruits of science and technology and industrialism were to benefit all humanity, human society would have to be re-engineered. And this transformation would require central planning by the state, rather than being left to a few entrepreneurs haphazardly pursuing personal profit. If these few entrepreneurs and industrialists had achieved so much in such little time, then imagine how much more productive and efficient it would be if planned in advance. Of course, such planning would entail the subservience of individual will to the social will, embodied in the state, but this would be a small loss. The scientific-engineering mentality to which Hayek refers was one that had shifted its attention from the creation of large factories and other industrial processes to the creation of entire societies, organised on much the same lines - society as a very large scale factory. Triumphant in one, they would surely be triumphant in the other.

Idle Theory in many ways exemplifies exactly the scientism that Hayek distrusts as inappropriate to the study of human society. But in other respects it is strongly sympathetic to Hayek's individualism and liberalism. The socialist planners set out to produce an abundance of material wealth, such that every man and woman would have a roof over their head, and food on the table, and health care and education. But Idle Theory's goal is not one of material abundance, but of the emancipation of humanity from toil. What really matters in Idle Theory is the specific kind of individual human freedom that rising idleness brings. Idle Theory's complaint against laissez-faire capitalism is that it freed hardly anyone from toil, even if it provided the toilers with an abundance of consumer goods. Everyone carried on working just as hard as they had in previous ages, and perhaps harder. And Idle Theory's complaint against socialism is exactly the same, with the added extra complaint that socialism vastly raised the status of work, and made heroes of its workers. The few idle beneficiaries of capitalism could at least enjoy a good time, in ways that Soviet commissars could not. In this respect at least, capitalism was superior to communism. And any ideology that places work above leisure is, in Idle Theory's terms, almost by defintion doomed to extinction. Horribly toiling capitalism and horribly toiling communism might have been almost entirely indistinguishable from each other, but the former did not idolize work quite like the latter, and its indolent playboy rich, although few in number, manifestly and unashamedly enjoyed a largely idle life.

If Idle Theory is in many senses profoundly scientistic, through being of a mathematical-physical character, its impulse is not one of setting out to promptly re-engineer society from the bottom up, but instead one of studying the behaviour of 'natural' manufacturing and trading systems, as they are perceived from the viewpoint of Idle Theory. Idle Theory does not have any grand plan for the re-organisation of society. Instead it offers another way of looking at society, another way of understanding it. At least one of its small triumphs is a new explanation for profit, which nobody seems to understand. Up at back of Idle Theory is the belief that only once one has understood what is happening in human economic systems can one intervene to change them - in exactly the same way that it is only once one has understood the laws of physics that one can design rockets - or orbital siphons - that act within these laws. Any attempt to intervene, that is not based on a deep empirical or theoretical knowledge, can only result in disaster.

Idle Theory has not proceeded empirically, but almost entirely theoretically. It has not studied real economic systems, but has instead constructed computer simulation models of theoretical economies, studying how they behaved. This is very much the sort of approach of the theoretical physicists who derived the gas laws not from empirical studies of actual gases, but from theoretical models of particles in motion - the kinetic theory. This sort of approach is currently regarded as only being applicable to wholly determinate particles bouncing around inside chambers, and not to humans who are relatively indeterminate, and free to make choices. This is free-determinate division is something that Idle Theory questions. It sees human life as only partly free, only free to the extent that it is idle.

Hayek links the decline of an essentially English individualist liberalism with the rise of a different set of ideas, which were largely developed in Germany from the late 19th century onwards. These were ideas associated with socialism and planning. Early socialists, such as Saint-Simon, were authoritarian, but later socialists began to align themselves with ideas of freedom.

Freedom from coercion and necessity

To the great apostles of political freedom the word had meant freedom from coercion, freedom from the arbitrary power of other men, release from the ties which left the individual no choice but obedience to the orders of a superior to whom he was attached. The new freedom promised, however, was to be freedom from necessity, release from the compulsion of the circumstances which inevitably limit the range of choice of all of us, although for some very much more than for others. Before man could be truly free, the "despotism of physical want" had to be broken, the "restraints of the economic system" relaxed.
    Freedom in this sense is, of course, merely another name for power or wealth. Yet, although the promises of this new freedom were often coupled with irresponsible promises of a great increase in material wealth in a socialist society, it was not from such an absolute conquest of the niggardliness of nature that economic freedom was expected. What the promise really amounted to was that the great existing disparities in the range of choice of different people were to disappear. The demand for the new freedom was thus only another name for the old demand for an equal distribution of wealth.
(Chapter II)

How does the demand for freedom from necessity become a demand for an equal distribution of wealth? It's rather hard to see how Hayek goes from one to the other.

Idle Theory is very much concerned with freedom from necessity. But necessity, in Idle Theory, is the need of men to regularly act to maintain themselves alive. And they can never be absolutely free of such necessity. Instead they have a degree of freedom which is measured by their Idleness, which is the fraction of their time during which they do not act to maintain themselves. This degree of freedom never reaches unity, or complete freedom. And it is a very real degree of freedom, because while men are busy maintaining themselves, they are disbarred from doing anything else. It is only in their idle time that they are free to do as they wish, rather than as they must.

To the degree that men are idle, and free, to that extent they are also empowered to do as they wish. This isn't what is usually meant by power, which is the the power to make other people do as one wants. And if men use their idle time to make and trade those amusements and luxuries which ordinarily pass for wealth, to that extent idleness brings wealth.

But having identified the new freedom with wealth, Hayek then somehow concludes that it entailed an equal distribution of wealth. Perhaps it was that once this freedom became identified with wealth, then any relative lack of freedom arose from a relative lack of wealth, and there would be no relative lack of freedom if there was no relative lack of wealth, or if wealth was equally distributed. That is, if wealth is always relative wealth, and lack of freedom is always relative lack of freedom, then when relative wealth is minimal, relative lack of freedom is also minimal.

But in Idle Theory it is the absolute idleness of an individual that determines how free he is, not how idle he is relative to anyone else. Increasing idleness brings increasing freedom. Of course, in a society whose members are on average 60% idle, some people may be 80% idle, and some 40% idle. In Idle Theory a strong case is made that societies should attempt to maintain a broad equality of idleness - an equal distribution of wealth -, but on the grounds firstly that the members of any society may reasonably expect for its wealth to be divided roughly equally, and secondly that in an interdependent society the fate of everyone is bound up together, and the departure or death of the least idle will most likely have consequences for the most idle. One is a call for justice, and the other for prudence.

And in Idle Theory, any relative equality of idleness is regarded as being quite separate and distinct from the mean idleness of society. Relative idleness is quite distinct from absolute idleness. And in Idle Theory, maintaining or increasing mean social idleness is more important than maintaining an equality of idleness. Ideally the ship of society should proceed at a good speed and on an even keel, but maintaining an even keel is less important than maintaining a good speed.

In Idle Theory, complete freedom from necessity is achieved only at perfect or unit absolute idleness. And this is, to all practical purposes, unattainable. It can only be more or less closely approached. And absolute idleness is not the same as relative idleness, anyone's idleness relative to anyone else's.


In many ways, the fundamental problem here is one of terminology. Words like 'freedom', 'wealth', 'power', 'necessity', and the like are ill-defined, nebulous terms. They quite often have several meanings. And the result, all too often, is that any discussion in which they are used is likely to quickly descend into confusion.

Idle Theory's approach to this problem is to define its own new terminology, its own set of words, and then attempt to tie words like 'freedom', 'wealth', 'security', and the like to this new terminology. In Idle Theory, living things are seen as primarily working to maintain themselves. 'Necessity' describes this condition of having to work to stay alive. The creatures alternate between busily working to maintain themselves, and idling. Their 'idleness' is the fraction of their time they spend idle. The creatures may spend a maximum of all their time working to maintain themselves, at zero idleness. Or they may spend next to none of their time working to maintain themselves, at near perfect idleness. When the creatures are busy working, they are not free to do anything else. But in their idle time they can do nothing, or anything. In the case of human life, idle time is 'free time', time in which people can do as they want, rather than as necessity dictates. So to the extent that people are idle, they are free to choose what to do with their idle time. This is what is meant by 'freedom' in Idle Theory. And since in their idle time they can make toys and amusements and pastimes for themselves, which heap of goods may be called 'wealth', then it is only to the extent that they are idle that they can become thus superfluously wealthy. Their real, underlying wealth is their idleness.

Idle Theory's description of necessity and freedom is a little unorthodox, in that it describes human life as a process in which things are done, rather than a state or condition in which things are possessed. It is more usual to describe the absence of necessity as, for example, "having enough to eat", or "having a roof over one's head". This "having" is atemporal. It fixes upon the end result of work, which is a plate of food, and not upon the work that was done to acquire this transient plate. Equally, "possessing wealth" is atemporal, in that it misses out the temporal processes of creating and enjoying such wealth. The rich are all too often thought of as in some way timelessly living in their palatial palaces and gardens, as if captured in an artist's portrait.

Equally, Idle Theory's description of necessity and freedom is of a temporal process, in which idleness rises, but also falls. In Idle Theory, humanity struggles to rise from a condition of low idleness - and consequently poverty and insecurity and lack of freedom - to a condition of high idleness - and consequently wealth and security and freedom. Humanity embarked on a long journey, and that journey has not ended. If there is to be an enduring condition of freedom and security for humanity, it lies some time in the future. It is not something that can be realized or actualized at present. We can only proceed slowly. We cannot leap forward at one bound, much as we may wish to do so.

If socialism was the road to serfdom it was because socialists did not set out to understand the societies within which they lived, but to simply tear them down and replace them with utopian fantasy schemes. It is just as if they had set out to tear down the laws of physics, and replace them with 'better' laws. The results were predictably disastrous. The one regular consequence of ideologically-motivated interference in economic processes is a fall in idleness, which translates into serfdom. If you shoot a flying bird, it will fall to ground.

Two Kinds of Freedom

What our generation has forgotten is that the system of private property is the most important guarantee of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not. It is only because the control of the means of production is divided among many people acting independently that nobody has complete power over us, that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. If all the means of production were vested in a single hand, whether it be nominally that of "society" as a whole, or that of a dictator, whoever exercises this control has complete power over us. Chapter VIII

Here Hayek is writing about what he means by freedom, which is freedom from coercion. And there can be no doubt that this is a very important freedom. However, freedom from coercion does not mean that we as individuals can decide what to do with ourselves. We can only do that to the extent that we are idle.

The distinction between Hayek's notion of freedom, and Idle Theory's notion of freedom, might be illustrated by the dilemma of the slave Gaius Melissus, who worked as a grammarian in the household of the wealthy Roman Maecenas, and whose free-born but poverty-stricken mother asked for his freedom to be restored. Melissus turned down the offer, preferring slavery to freedom. Why would Melissus have done this? The answer perhaps was that although nominally a slave, Melissus was well-treated, and lived a relatively easy - or idle - life as a grammarian in Maecenas' library. Freedom would mean have meant returning to his mother's household, and to a practically difficult - busy - life. Melissus was faced with a choice between being nominally unfree but practically relatively idle, or being nominally free but practically relatively busy. Melissus chose the former. In doing so, he was probably counting on Maecenas continuing to employ him as a grammarian in his library. Had Maecenas used his power to power as slave-owner to remove Melissus from the library, and set him to work cleaning sewers and stables, Melissus would probably have regretted turning down the offer of freedom.

The same sort of dilemma may arise with prisoners who are freed from prison. Inside prison, they are nominally unfree, but may practically be well-fed, clothed, and quartered, and with considerable freedom of action within the prison. Outside its walls, they may be penniless, homeless, and considerably less free than inside prison. In such circumstances, committing a crime so as to stay in prison might appear to them to be a better option than regaining their freedom.

In Idle Theory's account of slavery, furthermore, slave-owners only want slaves in order to free themselves from work, and thus to increase their own idleness and practical freedom of action. And they can only employ a slave's idle time for their own purposes. Slavery arises out of the otherwise low idleness of slave-owners, and would not happen if the slave-owners were already perfectly idle. Prospective slave-owners, faced with a choice between living a life of toil, or living a relatively idle life owning a slave, regularly opted for the practical freedom that came with owning a slave. Melissus also chose practical freedom when choosing to remain a slave.

People may not, of course, always choose practical freedom. In the Soviet Union, for example, reindeer herdsmen which had been given a secure life on collective farms quite often chose to return to their traditional way of life, which was more difficult, but nominally free. As herdsmen they ran their lives as they wished, free from the constraints of collective farm life.

Equally, salaried employees of a large company may come to prefer the uncertainty and insecurity of life outside it to the security of employment within it. Inside a large company, an individual foregoes his nominal freedom while at work, and becomes something very much like a part-time slave, doing as he is told by his superiors. Only at the evenings or weekends does he recover his nominal freedom to do as he likes. But if life in the company is very leisurely, he may find that he is also practically free to do very much as he chooses, taking long lunch breaks, and skipping off work early. Should his superiors invoke their powers, and demand that he work not only the hours required of him, but considerable amounts of overtime as well, he will become practically less free, regardless of whatever his nominal status as employee might be. In such circumstances, an employee might change his employment until he finds an employer who is less demanding of him, or might opt set up his own company in which he works for himself. And, much like Melissus, he might prefer the relative practical freedom of a secure, leisurely and well-paid job to a nominal freedom outside it which might prove both busy and ill-paid.

Hayek, however, would perhaps have pointed out that Melissus at least had a choice, of continuing to be a slave or not, and in an absolute tyranny he would not have even had that. But how does such tyranny arise?

But Idle Theory would argue that Hayek's nominal freedom is closely connected to practical freedom. In busy, practically unfree societies, men are most likely to be nominally unfree as well. In relatively busy Roman society, the nominal institution of slavery recognized and reflected the practical underlying unfreedom of Roman life. In relatively idle contemporary society, the nominal institution of salaried employment, or part time slavery, recognizes and reflects the easier and idler conditions of contemporary life. And if contemporary society should become still more idle, the conditions of employment would relax accordingly. And if they became less idle, the conditions of employment would tighten. And if social idleness fell considerably, one might even see the return of slavery. It is not impossible that there could be busy societies in which men were nominally free, or idle societies in which men were nominally deeply unfree. But in the former case, practical unfreedom would mean that life was practically unfree, even if men were treated as nominally free agents. And the latter case, practical freedom would mean that life would be practically free, even if all men were nominally slaves.

From Idle Theory's perspective, Hayek's nightmare of totalitarian society is really one in which social idleness is falling, and men find themselves practically less and less free, even if they regard themselves as free men living in a free society. The condition of war is one in which social idleness falls, because fighting is a form of intense busyness. In wartime, young men are sent to fight, and those who stay at home have to work harder to support both themselves and the troops in the field. Life becomes more difficult for everybody. And if war brings the devastation of factories and farms, and goods of every kind become scarce, social idleness falls still further. Since falling idleness may very often be accompanied by a depreciating currency, there may also be rampant monetary inflation. If social idleness begins to approach zero, and continued survival is threatened, social cohesion will break down, as individuals begin to seek to survive outside society through black market trading, theft, and looting. Political revolution becomes likely, as the old order loses control of a disintegrating society. The new political masters who step into their shoes, whoever they may be, have to act to restore order, usually by invoking draconian powers in a police state. In such circumstances any social groups which do not share in the common experience of increasingly difficult life are deeply resented.

The Soviet Union, that emerged in the immediate aftermath of a wartime revolution, was probably one in which social idleness was falling sharply, and where life had become considerably harder for everybody. It was in these circumstances that the Soviet authorities took clumsy, draconian measures to stabilize an economic system that they did not really understand. It was only after another 30 years of economic experimentation (and another war) that social idleness began to rise, and the draconian exertion of political power began to be gradually relaxed, and Soviet citizens began to enjoy a relatively secure and idle life. And as the idleness of Soviet citizens rose, state power continued to dwindle, until growing demands for political representation brought democratisation, insecurity - and falling idleness. When the Soviet Union ceased to exist, its former citizens exchanged nominal unfreedom and relative practical freedom for nominal freedom and relative practical unfreedom.

The German Nazi state may well have grown up in much the same way. In the aftermath of defeat in the First World War, narrowly having avoided political revolution, saddled with reparations, its currency devaluing, German idleness was probably falling steeply. The Nazi regime acted to provide employment, and reindustrialize and re-arm. At the same time, relatively idle social groups such as Jews and Gypsies and criminals who were regarded as parasitic on the German people began to face growing resentment and persecution. Had the Nazis won the subsequent Second World War, as they very nearly did, the oppressive Nazi state would probably have gradually relaxed its grip, and relented in its persecutions, much like the post-war Soviet state. And by the 1980s Nazism would have begun to seem increasingly inappropriate for a prosperous Europe seeking democratic representation and cultural pluralism in the years after Hitler's death in 1964. Nazi calls to renew the Hitlerian fuhrerprinzip, and to launch new wars, would have been met with growing indifference and antagonism. A German Solzhenitzyn would reveal the secrets of wartime Nazi labour camps, which were themselves a response to falling social idleness, just as in the Soviet Union.

Despite his refusal to be freed from slavery, Gaius Melissus was freed shortly thereafter, and became a librarian for Augustus. Since Augustus was the first emperor of Rome, and under his single rule the Roman republic had given way to the Roman empire, and every Roman had become a subject of his imperial power, it probably suited Augustus well to reward a slave who had preferred practical freedom above nominal freedom. The message of the new emperor was clear as he promoted Melissus: Roman citizens should prefer practical freedom above the constraints of imperial rule in exactly the same way that the slave Melissus preferred practical freedom to nominal slavery. The very practical Roman people did not revolt against its new Augustan emperium - which lasted for another 500 years.

Unitary Goals

The various kinds of collectivism, communism, fascism, etc, differ between themselves in the nature of the goal towards which they want to direct the efforts of society. But they all differ from liberalism and individualism in wanting to organise the whole of society and all its resources for this unitary end, and in refusing to recognise autonomous spheres in which the ends of the individual are supreme. In short they are totalitarian in the the true sense of the this new word which we have adopted to describe the unexpected but nevertheless inseparable manifestations of what in theory we call collectivism. ...The welfare and the happiness of millions cannot be measured on a single scale of less and more. The welfare of a people, like the happiness of a man, depends on a great many things that can be provided in an infinite variety of combinations. It cannot be adequately expressed as a single end, but only as a hierarchy of ends, a comprehansive scale of values in which every need of every person is given its place. Chapter V

Here Idle Theory comes quite sharply into collision with Hayek. For Idle Theory does have a unitary goal: the increase of social idleness.

But Idle Theory recognises an autonomous sphere in which the ends of the individual are supreme. It is in their idle time that the ends of individuals are supreme. It is only in their idle time that individuals can do as they choose. The whole purpose of human society, of economic systems, ethical codes, and laws, is to provide humanity with the idle time in which to do as they wish, rather than as they must.

This at least should release Idle Theory from any charge of being totalitarian in nature.

And Hayek is quite right to say that the happiness of a man depends on an infinite variety of things. But Idle Theory is not about happiness, which is a psychological measure (if it is a measure at all) of well-being. An idle man may be happy or unhappy in his idle time. And what makes him happy, or gives him pleasure, is certainly not measurable on a unitary scale. What people enjoy doing in their idle time isn't something that can be measured on a unitary scale. In fact, the whole concept of "happiness", which is unitary in nature, entails an attempt to measure the immeasurable. Idle people are capable of an infinity of possible activities. Such infinities are immeasurable. But the idle time in which they are performed is measurable, in exactly the same way that a supply of fresh water to a household is measurable, in ways that the infinite number of uses to which that water may subsequently be put is immeasurable.

Equally, Idle Theory rejects any idea of planning and organising society to work towards the single goal of increasing social idleness. In part this is because this goal does not entail the provision of any particular set of material goods - like bread, water, housing and clothing. Its rather abstract goal can be reached in a great many ways. There are many ways by which men can live. And it is not anyway a goal that can ever be finally 'reached'. The abstract goal of perfect idleness is an unattainable goal to which any human society can only ever approximate.

To direct all our activities according to a single plan presupposes that every one of our needs is given its rank in an order of values which must be complete enough to make it possible to decide between all the different course between which the planner has to choose. It presupposes, in short, the existence of a complete ethical code in which all the different human values are allotted their due place.
Idle Theory does indeed postulate just such a complete ethical code. But it is an ethical code that is directed towards the increase of idleness, and which has almost nothing to say about how people should behave in their idle time. In that respect, it is perhaps not 'complete'. Idle Theory's ethics enjoins people to act so as to increase social idleness, to make life easier and simpler for themselves - but it offers no advice whatsoever what to do with that idle time.

We are not concerned here with the question whether it would be desirable to have such a complete ethical code. It may simply be pointed out that up to the present the growth of civilisation has been accompanied by a steady diminution of the sphere in which individual actions are bound by fixed rules.

Quite so. But the "sphere in which individual actions are bound by fixed rules" is the time in which men are busy working to maintain themselves, and are busily constrained to one or other set of activities. The "sphere in which the ends of the individual are supreme" is the idle time of such individuals. If the "sphere" in which individuals are bound to fixed rules of conduct has been diminishing, it is because human idleness has been rising.

From the primitive man who was bound by an elaborate ritual in almost every one of his daily activities, who was limited by innumerable taboos, and who could scarcely conceive of doing things in a way different from his fellows, morals have more or and more tended to become merely limits circumscribing the sphere in which the individual could behave as he liked.

No. When "primitive" man planted an ear of wheat in the ground, he did not know whether it was because he had planted the ear on its side towards the sun, or on the southern slope of a chalky hill, or among cowslips and marigolds, or whether he had approached from the south, singing some particular song, and holding a wooden stick and a leather bag, that had caused the corn to grow. And so what he did was to repeat as exactly as he could what he had done in the past, in every detail, right down to the song he had been singing. "Primitive" man was no fool. He did not know why the corn grew abundantly here, but not there, and at different times of the year. And so, in his ignorance, he simply tried to repeat what he had done in the past. And, in time, when he inevitably failed to perfectly replicate those former efforts, he gradually found that it didn't really matter whether there were cowslips growing nearby, or that he carried a wooden stick and a leather bag, or sang a particular song. Little by little he discovered, by a slow process of elimination, what was necessary - and what was unnecessary - to make corn grow abundantly. Everything that was "ritual" was everything that was unnecessary. It didn't really matter, primitive man gradually discovered, if there were no marigolds in bloom when he planted the corn seeds. The stripping away of ritual was the stripping away of the unnecessary. This stripping away was always accompanied by the profoundest doubts and reservations, however.

It was - for primitive, blind, unknowing man - necessary to perform rituals. These rituals were simply repetitions of what he done in the past, which had brought success. Over time, it slowly emerged that most of the ritual conduct was unnecessary.

But primitive, blind, unknowing man never reduced this ritual down to doing absolutely nothing at all. He still found that he had to plant the seed in the ground, on a sunlit field, well watered by streams of water, in spring. He began to find a seemingly irreduceable minimum effort was needed, once unnecessary ritual had been stripped away. Chained by ritual behaviour, his life had been busy. Unchained, it was idle. But it was never perfectly idle. He could never simply behave as he liked, all the time.


Hayek rejects both a socialist goal of freedom from necessity, and socialist planned society. Idle Theory, by contrast, accepts a socialist goal of freedom from necessity, formulated in its own terminology of idleness. But it rejects socialist planned society for much the same reasons that Hayek gives, and for other reasons as well. Idle Theory says that what Hayek calls the "human sphere where human human ends are supreme" is the same as what Idle Theory calls idle time. It is only in their idle time that anyone can do as they themselves choose. But Hayek rejects any unitary scale of value. He says you can't measure happiness that way. And, no, you can't, but Idle Theory isn't trying to measure happiness. Idle Theory's unitary scale measure idleness, which Idle Theory asserts to be a fundamental measure of human freedom. Whether people are happy with that freedom is a quite separate matter. If they are unhappy in their freedom, they are free to do something about it. If they are busy and unhappy, there is little that they can do about it, because they are not free to act.

Most discussions of human nature start off either supposing that human nature is either free or determined. Most philosophical speculation begins with the former postulate. But Idle Theory holds human nature to be neither wholly free nor wholly determined, but instead part-time largely free, and the-other-part-time largely determined. But Idle Theory's notion of humans as part-time free agents seems to be absent from contemporary debate.

And Idle Theory seems to sit half way between the resolutely unplanned free market doctrines of Hayek, and those of his his socialist adversaries. This is perhaps exactly as it should be.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: November 2007
Last edited: