The Only Wealth

The only wealth I'll ever have is the profound and sweet freedom to sit idly by some river and gaze across its eddies and ripples on the sliding water to the far green shore, to pick up and study a few worn pebbles and leaves, to stroll along the bank and catch the scent of nameless flowers.

It's not the river and the pebbles and the flowers and trees that make up this wealth. No. It's just as sweet a freedom to gaze across some parking lot filled with cars and trucks, pick up and study some discarded hub cap, and smell the odour of oil and gasoline.

The sweet freedom is to be able to choose to gaze, to pick things up, to study, to stroll around, to do this or that or the other. It is the freedom to do what one wants to do. It is the freedom to do nothing at all. It is the freedom to just be.

But human life - this interval between birth and death - has never entirely consisted of such freedom. Instead it has almost always been one of choiceless toil: to sow and reap plants, to shepherd flocks, to grind and bake and eat bread, to haul water, to spin wool and weave cloth and sew garments. There was little time to sit by rivers watching the water slip by. If that sweet freedom was ever experienced, it was mostly on public holidays on which all work was forbidden.

All that work, all the sowing and reaping, the grinding and hauling, the chopping and hammering, only ever had as its goal the sweet freedom to choose what to do. It was never that Sunday was just a day on which to recover from the far more important and meaningful working week. No, that idle sabbath day was the reward and purpose of the working week.

Everything else, everything that is ordinarily called "wealth", is only icing on the cake of this fundamental freedom to choose. All those fast cars, elegant clothes, fine houses, landscaped gardens, swimming pools and tennis courts, are a mere thin veneer upon the substantive mass of that primary freedom - like the mantle of vegetation upon the vast sphere of this planet.

And all these things are anyway the product of idle time. A society that has no idle time can produce no luxuries. For all luxuries are made from idle time foregone in work to make them. And all these luxuries require idle time for their enjoyment. What point a tennis court, if there is no time to play the game.

All these things provide a wider range of choice: that instead of porridge every day, we can eat bread or fish or lamb rogon josh or Kentucky fried chicken. But an ever-increasing range of choice is not the same as an ever-increasing ability to choose. And it is the ability to choose, not the range of possible choices, that matters. Freedom does not consist in the ability to choose from a wide range of products on a supermarket shelf: freedom is the ability to continually choose.

A country is rich to the extent that its people are able to freely choose how to dispose of their time, not to the extent that they have the widest range of choice of toys and amusements. And indeed, to the extent that wealth is identified with wider choice, any increase in the range of choice only comes with a decrease in the ability to choose. For all these various delights and pleasures are only ever bought by surrendering the freedom to choose, by setting idle hands to work to make them.

And therefore it must be the primary purpose of any society, not to increase the range of choice open to its members, but instead to expand their ability to choose, by shortening the working week, and correspondingly expanding the idle weekend. If, on extensive idle weekends, some people choose to busy themselves making and trading toys and amusements, so let them - if that is what they choose to do.

And if any society abandons the pursuit of idleness, and instead sets up some other ambition, it will inevitably become busier and busier, poorer and poorer, until it can no longer sustain itself, and disintegrates and dies.  

I went down to the river by the bridge. I gazed across the ripples. I picked up litter and stones and leaves and flowers. No sculptor could have carved those flowers. No artist could ever have painted the leaves. No engineer could ever have designed their branching stems. No couturier could have thus clothed this world.

Look at all the things that I got.

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: September 2003