The Battle for Straight Time

In a previous post, I noted that Michael Moore’s “SiCKO” is not just a film about health care, but a full-blown argument for European-style social democracy. Ezra Klein makes the same point in an LA Times editorial, where he zeroes in on a subject dear to my heart: working time.

Klein notes that Americans get a lot less vacation time than Europeans. Indeed, this is one of the only countries in the world that doesn’t require employers to give their workers some vacation time. He could have pointed out that Americans work longer hours, too.

I’ve always thought that reducing the length of the working day was one of the most important things for socialists to advocate. Maybe it’s because I agree with Karl Marx’s son-in-law, Paul LaFargue, who advocated “the right to be lazy”. Of course, it was old Karl himself who said that socialism was about reducing the “realm of necessity” in which we must work to live, and expanding the “realm of freedom” dedicated to the development of our creative capacities. Freedom begins where necessity ends, and “the shortening of the working-day is its basic prerequisite”. I’ve always thought that what socialism was about was not fundamentally higher wages or better working conditions (although of course we fight for those things). For me, it’s about time. As the 19th century labor movement put it, “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will.” I want to expand the “what we will”.

And it’s odd, historically, that the canonical work week has been stuck at 40 hours for so long. Once upon a time, the labor movement struggled to achieve the ten hour day, and then the eight hour day. The great economist John Maynard Keynes thought this pattern would continue: he predicted that technological change would free us from work.

Instead, we keep working longer for less. I tend to agree with left liberals like Ezra Klein that it would be good to use public policy to reduce working time. But this argument tends to bring up a predictable libertarian objection: if people are working so much, it must be because they prefer more money to more leisure. And who are we to obstruct their preferences? This is what a smart libertarian like Julian Sanchez basically says about the issue.

(A digression: engaging with libertarian arguments is something I recommend for leftists. Yes, the premises behind their beliefs are morally repugnant. And they are totally marginal to American public opinion. But unlike many conservatives, their positions are rational and logically coherent. And arguing with them will make you a sharper thinker. But more on that in a future post.)

So anyway, I think the libertarian argument is half right. The kind of policies I would like to see enacted woulddiscriminate against workaholics. But the present state of affairs discriminates against people like me, who want to minimize the amount of time they have to spend working for wages. I, for one, am perfectly happy to make the normative claim that a society in which we work less and buy less would be preferable to one in which we work more and buy more.

Aside from the intrinsic value of leisure, there are a number of arguments one could make on behalf of this position. One is that more working hours doesn’t necessarily mean a more productive economy–”better fewer but better”, as Lenin said in a very different context. And in any case, maybe a less productive economy would be a good idea for ecological reasons. Finally, let’s not forget that non-work time doesn’t have to mean unproductive time. People already do lots of things in their spare time that are useful even if they aren’t “valuable” in an economic sense–everything from taking care of kids to writing music to coding software. Maybe people would do more of these things if they spent less time working. This is a possibility Jason hints at in one of his posts.

So how do we liberate our time? Well, universal health care would be a start, actually, since it would remove the need for people to be constantly employed (and employed full time) in order to have health care. And then on down the road, maybe we could try something a little more daring [PDF]

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