What is Wealth?
In Idle Theory, the original circumstance of humanity is taken to be one of unremitting toil, and the invention of useful tools and technologies, the adoption of varieties of political organization, moral codes, and legal statutes, were intended to diminish, as far as possible, the necessary work of men, and free them into idleness. Wealth, in Idle Theory, is idle time, which can be freely disposed of in whatever way is chosen. All the amusements and diversions and toys that delight humanity are the product of idle time, and are enjoyed in idle time. The necessities of life are those things which serve to enhance human idleness, while the production and consumption of amusing luxuries absorbs that idleness.
But the economic philosophers who founded the modern discipline of economics habitually start from the opposite assumption. They regularly suppose that the original circumstance of humanity was one of indolence and idleness and poverty, until they set themselves to work industriously in the production and distribution of wealth. The opening words of Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, describe how this wealth is acquired:
The annual labour of every nation is the fund which originally supplies it with all the necessaries and conveniences of life which it annually consumes, and which consist always either in the immediate produce of that labour, or what is purchased with that produce from other nations.
In the Introduction, Smith goes on to say that in civilized societies the produce of the whole labour of society is so great that even the poorest workman enjoys a greater share of these necessaries and conveniences than any savage could acquire. Smith never states what he means by the "necessaries and conveniences and [Ch.5] amusements of life". It must be taken to mean a general bundling together of food, shelter, clothing, with anything else anyone might have occasion to use or consume. Anyway, people work to produce these goods, and the more they produce the more abundantly and opulently they are supplied. The book proper opens with the description of a pin factory whose division of labour results in the production of some 50,000 pins per day, where a single individual could scarcely make 20 - illustrating just how civilized society expands its production of goods, by comparison with the savage state:
In that rude state of society in which there is no division of labour... every man endeavours to supply by his own industry his own occasional wants as they occur. When he is hungry, he goes into the forest to hunt; when his coat is worn out, he clothes himself in the skin of the first large animal he kills; and when his hut begins to go to ruin, he repairs it, as well he can, with the trees and turf that are nearest it. (Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. Book II, Introduction)
No sense of necessity or difficulty intrudes upon this description of an earlier human state. There is no sense that hunting is arduous, or that large animals are difficult to kill, or that there is any great difficulty in cutting down trees.
Later in the book, while discussing the accumulation of capital, Adam Smith remarks that:
We are more industrious than our forefathers, because in the present times the funds destined for the maintenance of industry, are much greater in proportion to those which are likely to be employed in the maintenance of idleness, then they were two or three centuries ago. Our ancestors were idle for want of a sufficient encouragement to industry. It is better, says the proverb, to play for nothing, than to work for nothing. In mercantile and manufacturing towns, where the inferior ranks of people are chiefly maintained by the employment of capital, they are in general industrious, sober, and thriving... In those towns which are principally supported by the constant or occasional residence of a court, and in which the inferior ranks of people are chiefly maintained by the spending of revenue, they are in general idle, dissolute, and poor; (Adam Smith. The Wealth of Nations. Book II, Ch.3. emphasis added)
Since Adam Smith is one of the founding fathers of economic philosophy, it can be no surprise if his vision of the economic process has a modern ring to it. Economists have thought in much the same way since, even when they were radicals like Marx. The Wealth of Nations discusses money, the wages of labour, profit, capital. That goods have a use-value as well as an exchange value is mentioned, but not elaborated. People work to make things that they want, and the division of labour and industrial technology serve to increase their productivity, and the relative abundance of these things.
A century later, neo-classical economic philosophers began to flesh out an economic psychology. The goods produced by the economy afforded pleasure, or satisfaction. A hedonic calculus of pain and pleasure was proposed. The description of economic man as idle before he sets himself to work became explicit. Thus
We note that the consumer has some fixed endowment of 'free' time, over and above time required for essential purposes such as sleep. The consumer has a choice between selling any part of his time (as labour) and retaining it for personal relaxation. (K. Lancaster. Introduction to Modern Microeconomics. c1970)
..the first few hours of work a week may actually be a pleasant alternative to the boredom implicit in complete idleness, (David Laidler. Introduction to Microeconomics 1974).
From the point of view of Idle Theory such a life of almost complete leisure, which individuals forego in labour in manufacturing and trading pleasurable goods, is not impossible or irrational - but it is unlikely. The world could be like that. But in Idle Theory it is a special case, one extreme limit in the range of possibilities, the other limit of which is a world in which there is no leisure, and no pleasurable luxuries.
Of course, in a modern world of increasingly automated factories, it might be argued that modern economies approximate to perfect leisure, that human technology has now become so advanced that very little work actually is necessary, and that the economy is almost entirely driven by a human hunger for amusements and pleasures of one sort or another. But this is mere supposition. One could equally well point to the reality that many people on this planet are underfed, even starving, and that for a great many more life is one long round of grinding toil for which the remuneration they receive is barely enough to provide them with the food and shelter and clothing to work another day.
Of course, everyone would prefer that human life actually was, as the economic philosophers propose, continuous boring leisure from which work comes as a welcome relief. But though men might wish that life was like this, it does not follow that actually it is like this.
The raw collision between Idle Theory and the economic philosophers of recent centuries is that of opposite perceptions of reality. For these philosophers, human life appeared originally idle, until men got off their backsides and made something of themselves. In this view it is a human will and determination to Do Something rather than do nothing that is all-important. Without that will, humanity would still be festering in mud huts. The modern Work Ethic is a genuine ethic, a choice to work rather than not work. Human history is written in its tremendous achievements - broad motorways, soaring skyscrapers, etc -. Wealth consists in the things that men make and trade, and men are wealthier the more of these things they possess and consume, and there is no conceivable limit to that wealth.
In the opposite perception of Idle Theory, human life appears as originally toiling and difficult and unleisured. Human technology served to gradually relieve men of their burden of work, and provide them with leisure in which they could act freely as they chose. Wealth is leisure. The purpose of the economy, and indeed of human society, is to free men from work. Human laziness, the disinclination to work, far from being a vice, is instead an essential virtue without which men would never have acted to free themselves from work. Of course, once they had freed themselves from necessary work to some degree, they could then - if they so wished - devote themselves to making amusing toys. But such activity is entirely secondary and subsequent to the primary purpose of the economy.
Since work has been the lot of human life since time immemorial, human society is built around the imperative of work, organized in expectation of work - yet in hope of play. It is precisely the success, over many millennia, of humanity in gradually increasing leisure that has recently, perversely, resulted in the appearance of a novel economic philosophy which supposes that leisure is given, the birthright of men. What is called the "Work Ethic" is nothing other than the ancient imperative of work, passed down thousands of generations, filtered by this new philosophy into a nonsensical moral injunction to "keep busy" or "do something".
It is quite clear, in the present world, that the principal problems facing humanity are of an economic nature. Government is concerned with little else. Economies lurch uncontrolled from boom to bust, from inflation to deflation. There are as many proposed solutions as there are economists. A large part of this economic problem must lie in the completely unrealistic economic theories which have gained currency in recent centuries, and which can be described, in Kenneth Boulding's phrase, as "the celestial mechanics of a non-existent world."
Author: Chris Davis
Last edited: 29 October 1998