Idle Theory

The Politics of Town and Country

Two Illusions of Freedom

Humanity is only free to the extent that it is idle. Idle time is the only time in which people can do as they want, rather than do as they must. The rest of the time - busy time - they must work simply to survive. In idle societies, most of people's time is idle time, and most people are free to do as they please most of the time. In busy societies, most of people's time is busy time, and they have little freedom of choice in what they do.

A busy society is, for example, one in which the only idle time anyone sees is at the weekly day of rest. An idle society is one in which the only busy time anyone sees is during the weekly day of work.

There are two economies. One which creates leisure, and another which uses leisure. The latter, secondary economy is one in which men materially enrich themselves by foregoing leisure to make luxuries and amusements and pastimes. But this is only half the picture, and it's not the important half. The really important economy is the primary economy that produces leisure. Without this primary economy, the secondary economy could not exist.

The primary and secondary economies are as different as chalk and cheese. The primary economy is the economy of necessity. It is what provides the idle time in which humans are freed from necessity. It is what serves to bind people together in co-operative human societies. It is concerned with the physical continuity of energy-consuming and energy-expending humans. It is almost a branch of physics. The value of its goods are objective and physically measurable.

The secondary economy, by contrast, is made up of individual people doing what they like, making and selling things which are not necessary for their physical survival, but for their pleasure and delight. Its products are psychologically subjectively valued. The secondary economy is a matter of freedom and choice. There is no need for anyone to work within it. And when they work within it, they forego leisure (created by the primary economy) in order to gain luxuries and amusements.

In recent centuries, human idleness has been rising, largely thanks to labour-saving technological innovations of one sort or other. The result has been that many people live largely idle lives, and have gradually come to see life as a playground, and themselves as children in that playground. They see themselves as having been given a lifetime in which to do as they like. They regard themselves as absolutely free.

One result of this is that social rules of behaviour come to be seen as the rules of a game of the sort that is played in playgrounds by children. The rules of such games can be changed at any point in time. Usually, in playgrounds, the rules are changed to make the game more interesting, or more competitive, or more enjoyable. The rules can be anything at all.

The economy is also seen as a sort of game whose rules can be changed. The law is seen as a set of rules which can also be changed. Social conventions are seen as a set of rules which can be changed.

There arise then two sorts of people, both of whom share the same illusion of perfect freedom. One set is largely content with the current game that is being played, and the other set is discontented. This is a common playground problem.

The Illusion of the Right

In this playground world, the Right are unconcerned by relative poverty. For them, people only get as materially rich as they are prepared to work to become. The poor, in their view, are for the most part simply indolent. And they do not see why they should share their wealth with such indolent people. So they oppose any attempt to create an egalitarian society.

In the Right's view, in the game of life some people are winners and some are losers. That's just the way the cookie crumbles.

In the economic philosophy of the Right - neoclassical economics - people are explicitly seen as having a datum of 24 hours of leisure per day, which they forego as work in order to gain pleasure or satisfaction.

Neoclassical economic theory corresponds roughly with Idle Theory's secondary economy. In Idle Theory, the primary economy provides people with leisure. The secondary economy uses up this leisure. The relative size of the two economies is determined by the idleness of society. In busy societies, with little idle time, most work will be carried out in the primary economy - producing food, shelter, clothing, and useful tools of one sort or other -, and there will be only be a small secondary economy producing luxuries and amusements and pastimes. In idle societies, the converse is the case, and most people spend most of their time in a secondary economy working on cultural activities - art, music, TV, movies, literature, poetry, etc - and relatively little time is spent producing food and shelter and basic necessities. The higher the idleness of society, the nearer it corresponds to the neoclassical idea of an economy. But because perfect idleness cannot be achieved, the neoclassical economic vision is never perfectly accurate.

Neoclassical economic theory probably became dominant in technologically advanced societies because it corresponded more accurately than classical theory to actual economic behaviour within the expanding and dominant secondary economy. In this secondary economy, more and more luxuries and amusements were being exchanged, and fewer and fewer basic necessities and useful tools were being exhanged in the primary economy. Food, which is a necessity of life, increasingly became another kind of luxury: cuisine. Shelter, which is also a necessity of life, also become another kind of luxury, in the form of charming and fashionable houses. Clothing, which is also one of the necessities of life, became high couture fashion garments. And to the extent that these necessities became luxuries, they were treated more and more like luxuries no different from any other luxuries. Equally, useful tools like cars increasingly became status symbols, bought for their styling rather than their economy. In the end, everything had the character of a luxury or amusement of some sort.

The Illusion of the Left

In the same playground world, the Left notice that some people are poor and hard-working, and others are rich and idle. This strikes them as deeply unjust. They determine that they should correct this injustice. Very often they see this injustice as the product of an economic system which they regard as being driven by greed, and the profit motive. They set out to create a new world order in which everyone is equal.

This entails, in their view, stopping playing the game of Capitalism. It usually also entails state control and state planning. After all, the Left have a particular goal in mind - equality -, and so it is necessary for them to direct the economy in order to achieve this end.

The Left are vaguely aware that this rightwing leisure-based neoclassical vision of the economy is inappropriate. So they very often utilise Marxist economic theory in its place. But Marxist theory isn't much better than neoclassical economic theory. It sees the capitalist economy as an exploitation system. It encourages revolution and the implementation of a new order. Implicit in every notion of revolution is a belief that the old order is something that can simply be abolished. The idea that one can set up some sort of new order in which everything is equal and fair is based upon the supposition that economic laws are man-made laws, and are just the rules of a game that we all play, and that these rules can be changed at will. This is an illusion that grows out of seeing humans as being idle and free and engaged in playing a grand game that's called the Economy, which - like the board game of Monopoly - can have its rules changed. The world is not like that. The actual rules are fixed just like the laws of physics. It's not actually a game at all. The only thing to be done is to understand those rules, just like physicists set out to understand the fixed rules - laws - of physics, and work within them. If we have managed to launch spaceships into space, it is because our physicists have learned how to do so within the existing and unalterable laws of physics (as best we understand them), rather than because our physicists have abolished the laws of physics.

And this is why utopian leftwing political programmes always fail. They are always trying to abolish or change the laws that govern human economic systems, rather than discover and work within those laws. They are as certain of failure as a rocket launched in disregard of the laws of gravity and motion. Disaster is inevitable in such circumstances. And they very often fail disastrously and murderously because they are driven by a powerful idealism that demands that people act according to their new rules, rather than according to the fixed laws that actually govern them. They are telling people to float in the air and fly in the sky, and stop falling to earth. And this can't be done. People just can't do that.

There is nothing wrong with the Left's desire for equality. But it is appropriate to the primary economy rather than the secondary economy. The primary economy deals with the necessities of life, and these should be shared out equally, as far as possible. The primary economy is what binds together humanity in human society. And the Left always see human society as most important. We are "all in the same boat", adrift on the high seas of life, pulling together on the oars of our shared lifeboat. Nobody should be overly rewarded aboard the lifeboat. Nobody should be left behind.

But the goal of equality should extend no further than that of an approximate equality of idleness. There is no reason whatsoever that the fruits of the secondary economy should be distributed equally like in the primary economy, and that everybody should not only have an equality of idleness but also the same fashionable clothes and houses and works of art. The Right are quite correct to say that things should fall as they may in the secondary economy.

The dispute between Left and Right grows out of the fact that both see human life as a playground. Both also see the economy as a monolithic whole, the makes and sells material goods. Neither makes the distinction between a primary idleness-generating economy, and a secondary idleness-consuming economy, side by side. Both are lumped together into one. Primary necessities are conflated with secondary luxuries. A tug of war ensues.

If Left and Right were to recognise that idle time - leisure - is not a datum of human life, but is something that requires work to produce, and that there is a primary economy which generates leisure, and a secondary economy which uses up leisure, and the laws governing these two economies are completely qualitatively different, then the dispute between Left and Right would end. The Left would concern themselves with the primary economy, endeavouring to make it produce as much leisure as possible for everybody equally. And the Right would concern themselves with the playground secondary economy, in which equality (and perhaps law) has no place. They would stop arguing over the same thing, trying to make the 'economy' either into an egalitarian primary economy, or into a laissez-faire anything-goes secondary economy.

The shared illusion of both Left and Right is to see humans as fundamentally free agents. Both Left and Right live in a sort of imaginary paradise. Both have the same shared Rosy Vision of life. They just respond to it differently.

The truth is that human life is, overall, a long way from anything like perfect idleness. If it was, there would be no poverty or toil or suffering. That these things exist in the world is because perfection has not been achieved. It never will be achieved. Not quite.

The argument between Left and Right is essentially an argument between two failed (incomplete) economic theories. On the one hand there is the failed Marxist theory. And on the other hand there is the failing neoclassical economic theory.  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: March 2010