In Praise of Idleness
I forgot to bring Wicked or a copy of The New Yorker with me on the way to Oakland last weekend, and I could expect a lot of dead time on the way back, starting with AC Transit, then BART, and finally MUNI. There was a simple solution: I stopped by the Walden Pond Bookstore. There was a copy of Bertrand Russell’s In Praise of Idleness, with a bunch of pipes on stacked on the cover. I picked up a copy and had my reading material for the evening.
The eponymous first essay makes an interesting case for idleness. The first half of the essay is devoted to tearing down the notion that work in and of itself is somehow noble, and Russell makes some provocative arguments as to why one might want to rethink that conventional wisdom.
The second half of the essay concerns a world in which idleness is available to everyone. For those who doubt such an economic system is possible, Russell points to the first World War– the essay was written before the second– although it applies equally well to the second. With a significant fraction of the workforce fighting overseas, nations became efficient at organizing the remainder of the population to take over their roles. Yet that efficiency has not been realized in a way that allows most people sufficient idleness.
Russell’s pin factory example illustrates the problem well:
Suppose that, at a given moment, a certain number of people are engaged in the manufacture of pins. They make as many pins as the world needs, working (say) eight hours a day. Someone makes an invention by which the same number of men can make twice as many pins as before. But the world does not need any more pins: pins are already so cheap that hardly any more will be bought at a lower price. In a sensible world, everybody concerned in the manufacture of pins would take to working four hours instead of eight, and everyone else would go on as before. But in the actual world, this would be thought demoralising. The men will still work eight hours, there are too many pins, some employers will go bankrupt, and half the men previously concerned in making pins are thrown out of work. There is, in the end, just as much leisure as on the other plan, but half the men are totally idle while half are still overworked. In this way, it is insured that the unavoidable leisure shall cause misery all around instead of being a universal source of happiness. Can anything more insane be imagined?
I for one still do not understand how 10% of the population can suddenly be out of work when there was no famine, drought, or other natural disaster.
There are clearly limitations to and counter arguments to those made by Russell. A simple one is that this type of engagement of the work force in overproduction is part of what spurs innovation. Russell’s claim is that the innovation is actually coming from a small few who have enough idle time to invent, not those who are involved in the more mechanical aspects of realization. Would democratizing the idle time provide more outlets for innovation?
It’s 4 AM now, and it’s probably reflected in my writing. While tonight was not an idle one for me, I was working on something that interested me and brought me happiness when I finished it. And I did play the guitar as much as it brought me happiness, and now I am writing this. I am pretty sure sleeping now will help ensure that tomorrow is a happy day for me, so I should probably end this soon. As an aside: I’ve overused the word “happy” for no reason in particular.
Before I do, there is one other excerpt from the essay that I wanted to share:
The man who invests his savings in a concern that goes bankrupt is therefore injuring others as well as himself. If he spent his money, say, in giving parties for his friends, they (we may hope) would get pleasure, and so would all those upon whom he spent money, such as the butcher, the baker, and the bootlegger. But if he spends it (let us say) upon laying down rails for surface cars in some place where surface cars turn out to be not wanted, he has diverted a mass of labour into channels where it gives pleasure to no one. Nevertheless, when he becomes poor through the failure of his investment he will be regarded as a victim of misfortune, whereas the gay spendthrift, who has spent his money philanthropically, will be despised as a fool and a frivolous person.