IdleTheory Under The Apple Tree

Two visions of economic life

My father was a man of robust common sense. I never saw him read a book. His was the common sense that comes of playing rugby, sailing the seven seas, and working his way up into the senior management of a large multinational corporation. He had down-to-earth, straightforward convictions. He didn't entertain any strange or fanciful ideas.

One summer afternoon, after he had retired to his house in the country, he and I were sitting in the shade of the apple tree, drinking beer and munching nuts and talking. I was uncertainly puzzling aloud about life and work, when he interrupted me.

"Look," he said. "It's quite simple. First you need the basic necessities of life. But that takes next to no time. After that there are the good things in life. For some people that means fine wines. For others it's art and music. For others it's..."

I didn't hear him finish. I was too stunned by what he'd just said. He was expressing an idea that I'd only ever found in the depths of obscure microeconomics textbooks: my father was saying that life consisted almost entirely of leisure. What I'd thought was an implausible academic hypothesis had just revealed itself to be conventional wisdom, my father's common sense.

A great many consequences flow from this conception of life: Life is whatever you want to make of it. We are free to choose what we want to do. Discontented with mere idle existence, in the vast playground of the economy, men and women set themselves to work to manufacture and trade innumerable toys and trinkets and amusements and chocolates and fizzy drinks and chocolate sponge cakes. It is this 'divine' discontent that has been the spur that built our entire civilisation, with its motorways and cars and skyscrapers and movies and cocktails. Wealth is the great pile of chocolate sponge cake the economy generates, and we are each as rich as the slice we get. If we'd all been do-nothing layabouts, content with mere existence, we'd all still be living in mud huts. And our ceaseless activity only reflects the busy life of the plants and animals around us. All life keeps busy: this is what distinguishes life from inert matter.

But there are other consequences of regarding life as leisure. If life is just a game, then it follows that we are free to change the rules whenever we like. If we find life is too busy for our taste, it appears plausible to simply 'drop out'. And if, somehow or other, we find we have little or no leisure, then we can accuse aristocrats or capitalists or somebody of stealing our birthright from us. And also if life is leisure, we are always perfectly free to choose what we do, and fully culpable for our crimes and misdemeanours.

Anyway, sitting under the apple tree with my father, I held the quite opposite view: life did not seem to me to be almost all leisure - rather it seemed to me to be almost all work. In the society around me, children were sent to school to prepare for about a half a century of work from which they would one day retire and shortly afterwards die. What leisure there was in that life was confined to a few weeks of holiday a year, and a few hours and minutes on weekends and evenings. We were all so much raw material, like timber and steel and oil, fed into the maw of the vast engine of the economy, and there shredded and torn until, all value extracted, we were finally dispensed with. And, even more absurdly, nobody appeared to benefit from all this work: even the Queen of England had a busy schedule of work, meeting foreign dignitaries, launching ships, signing legislation, making speeches. We were none of us free. Everybody worked. Kings and their subjects, masters and slaves, clerics and laity, guards and prisoners, capitalists and workers, captains and crew, all were together on the same boat. And it appeared that it had always been ever thus.

The truth, it seemed to me, was that while on occasion the necessities of life could indeed be obtained in "next to no time", on many other occasions it often took next to the whole time. If the world as described by my father was 99% leisured, then it was perfectly plausible that it could also be 1% leisured. In a 99% leisured society, leisure would be the datum on which a chocolate cake economy could be erected. But in a 1% idle society, it would be leisure that everyone desperately wanted. As I saw it, the primary purpose of an economy was not to produce toys and amusements, but to generate leisure. Once one had leisure, then one had the time to produce and enjoy these secondary amusements.

The paradoxical idea of a leisure-generating economy appears to be entirely absent from orthodox economic theory. In what way can people possibly produce leisure? By developing labour-saving technologies. Suppose that some tool - a knife or a spade or something -, over its lifetime, saves more time in performing some necessary task than it costs to make it, then the net effect of using that tool will be to increase the amount of leisure available. It is a profitable tool (and herein lies the origin of profit, when such tools are bought and sold). And if there are many such tools, then in sum they will serve to produce a much greater amount of leisure. And if the quality of these tools is increased, such that they last longer, and the costs of producing them is reduced - perhaps by using tools to make tools -, then even more leisure is generated. It is the compound nature of technological progress that as more and more and more and more leisure is generated, there is more and more time available to develop and test and produce new tools.

But there is a top limit to this sort of economic growth, which is when everyone has almost 100% leisure. At that point, further small gains in leisure become increasing difficult to attain. 100% leisure can never be reached, rather like the velocity of light.

And there is also a bottom limit of 0% leisure, which is all too easily attained. And a society with no leisure, apart from being on the brink of extinction, is also one in which there is no time to develop new tools, and start of the compounding development of more and more tools. Societies with no leisure are stuck. They can only be rescued through the intervention of other leisured societies.

Technological innovation has really always been about finding easier ways to do things. The first farms brought hitherto-scattered food plants together in one place, which made it easy to keep them watered, fenced off from grazing animals, and easier to harvest. The first flint blades made it much easier and quicker to skin and carve up animals to eat, and to cut the stems of wheat and barley. The domestication of animals was a way to get them to do the hard work of hauling wood and stone and grain and water. And so on right up to the present day, where computers allow us to perform in one second calculations which a single mathematician would take a year to carry out with pencil and paper. Indeed mathematics itself is, very arguably, all about finding quicker ways to calculate the numbers of things. Got a triangular field, and you need to find out its area? Don't want to laboriously divide it up into little squares and count them up? Well, just measure the length of one side, B, and then measure the shortest distance from the opposite corner to that side, H, and the area of the triangle is H x B / 2. See? Easy.

All these farms, animals, flint knives, pencils and paper, computers, and mathematical formulae are useful tools we use to make life easier for us, to give us more leisured lives. Each one on its own only makes a modest contribution to our leisure, but when you add them all up, it comes to a lot of free time. And we trade these tools. We trade horses for boats, and boats for sugar, and sugar for pencils. Trade allows all the different tools we use to be as widely distributed as possible, so as many people as possible can benefit from them. The economy is where busy people cooperate to make life more leisured. Sure, once they've produced enough leisure time, they can use it to make chocolates, paint pictures, write poetry, and so on. But that's secondary. The primary purpose of the economy is to free us from work.

The same goes for the moral codes and laws by which we regulate our lives. Every tool comes with its own instruction manual, about how you should use it, maintain it, repair it, and a whole long list of do's and don'ts. They are not arbitrary instructions: they are intended to allow you to get best value - maximum leisure - from the tool. Morality in its widest sense is about maximizing leisure and minimizing work. What is right is what makes life easier, and what is wrong is what makes life harder. We can't tolerate murder, because murder deprives the murdered of their life and leisure, and costs the rest of us the skills he or she brought us. We can't tolerate theft, because it steals our leisure as we work to replace what was stolen. It's better that people deal with each other civilly and politely, because the smoother we all rub along together, the more leisured our lives will be. It helps if all the carts and carriages going one way down a road stick to one side, and those going in the opposite direction stick to the other side. And so on. None of our moral codes or laws are written in stone: we have to keep reviewing and amending them, just like we keep developing new tools and techniques.

And in a busy society, with little leisure and therefore little scope for the exercise of free choice, most people are not doing what they choose to do, but what necessity requires them to do. And if, in the course of such lives, they commit offences of one sort or other, they cannot be held entirely responsible and fully culpable, and therefore should be forgiven rather than branded as evil, and required to make compensation.

In a busy society, the overall governance of society, the steering of the ship of state, is simply another job which someone has to do. In the busiest societies, it will often fall to a single individual, a king, to make these key decisions - because everyone else is too busy at other tasks. In slightly more idle societies, a larger oligarchy has command. In yet more idle societies, democracy becomes possible. The more leisured a society becomes, the wider political power becomes dispersed.

Even religious belief might be seen as simply the bringing-together of absolutely everything we do to attain a life of leisure. Heaven has always been a condition of leisure and play. Hell has always been a condition of toil and suffering and pain. Everyday life is the alternation of one with the other, between workdays and holidays. And our goal is to reach heaven, or at very least avoid hell.

And, seen from this point of view, the natural world of plants and animals is also a working world. All the creatures have to work to survive, and all of them seek to minimize that work. It is the most idle creatures, that need do the least work to survive, who will outlive hard-working busy creatures when life gets harder, and all must work harder to survive.

Yet, if our whole society is geared to reducing our work, and to provide us with leisure, how come it has been so spectacularly unsuccessful? How come life remains as long a round of work as it ever was, despite our ever-advancing technology?

There are several answers that can be offered:

  1. Our technological progress has a long way yet to go. However, significant periodic mass unemployment points to relatively high real underlying leisure.
  2. Rather than develop labour-saving technologies, we have more frequently preferred to use much of our ingenuity in developing weapons systems, none of which add one iota to the sum of human leisure, but merely serve to redistribute it to those with the best weapons.
  3. Even more important, is that all too often the gains in leisure are not equally distributed across society. Monopolies and price-fixing cartels steer most of the gains to a super-rich minority who use it, in a "trickle-down" effect, to make the rest work making luxuries and amusements to earn their living.
  4. Given a conventional economic wisdom which portrays us as already idle, and seeks "full employment in wealth creation" of luxuries and amusements, we are actually sailing in the wrong direction.
  5. There is a deep fear of a general idleness. John Maynard Keynes once remarked something to the effect that no-one could consider the prospect of a general idleness with anything but fear and foreboding. Although it is the inherent nature of economic growth is towards a general leisure, it remains an inconceivable and therefore terrifying possibility, and recreating traditional working society, even by inventing pointless jobs, is preferrable to a general idleness.

These are all considerable but not insuperable obstacles. It will require some sort of paradigm shift for the conventional wisdom to come to be regarded as conventional ignorance. But it has happened many times before, and will happen many times again. It is forever the business of those who can - those with sufficient leisure - to question whatever happens to be the conventional wisdom of any age.

And were we manage that shift, and turn the ship of society about, and set sail towards a life of leisure rather than work, we would gradually begin to throttle back the vast overheated engine of our industry, curtail its exploitation of natural resources, reduce its output of waste and pollution, and provide everyone with lives of increasing leisure. This would not mean the end of all luxuries and amusements. It would simply mean that instead of all being yoked to ceaseless production, each could choose how much of their leisure to forego in their production and exchange, in a convivial society.

And then, little by little, we might at last arrive at a 99% idle society where one could truthfully say, "Look, it's quite simple. First you need the basic necessities. But that takes next to no time. After that there are the fine wines, and the art, and the music..."

I did not set out my idle theory to my father. I simply sat silently nursing the beer in my hand, in the dappled shade beneath the apple tree, until my mother called out that lunch was ready. I was too shocked by what he had said. And I did not want to point out to him that he had never actually lived the life of leisure that he described. Nor that he had never become a connoisseur of fine wines or anything else. Most of his life, he worked in an office treadmill, frequently returning home exhausted. He believed that he was a connoisseur living a life of leisure, but he was my father, and I did not want to tread on his dreams. And anyway, I wasn't entirely sure whether I was right and he was wrong.

And when he died, my mother scattered his ashes in the garden surrounding his house, in all the places where they used to sit together and enjoy a quiet and leisurely drink. That would have included the grass beneath the apple tree, where he once shared with me his vision of life as leisure, and where unstoppable dandelions now grow.

Chris Davis' Idle Theory can be found at http://idletheory.info  

Idle Theory

Author: Chris Davis
First created: 30 November 2003