The case for working less
A guest post from Tom Walker:
The economic case for shorter working time was made 100 years ago this August in Winnipeg by Sydney J. Chapman. It was the standard model accepted by the elite academic establishment â€“ Alfred Marshall, A.C. Pigou, Lionel Robbins and J.R. Hicks cited it as authoritative. This was not some obscure “debate among scholars from eons ago whom no one knows.” No debate was needed. It was an open and shut case. One hundred years later, the theory stands undisputedâ€¦ and ignored.
The case can be summarized as followsâ€¦
Technological advance makes the labour process more intensive and, as a consequence, more stressful and fatiguing. Meanwhile, the increased productivity of industry makes leisure time more valuable. A reduction in the hours of work is required if the gain in the value of leisure time is to be realized but also to establish a new baseline for further technological progress that could benefit society and the mass of working people. The competitive market for labour does not automatically lead to the establishment of optimal working time arrangements; rather it contains a systematic bias toward overly long hours.
This established theory was expunged from economic discourse by a technical gimmick with dubious empirical or theoretical merit but considerable mathematical convenience. By sheer coincidence, this methodological quirk also happens to please and appease “the free-market orthodoxy which dominates both economics instruction and economic policy-making in Canada.” But I digressâ€¦
There is a story about a drunk stumbling around under a lamp post looking for his keys. A passer-by offers to help and asks, “where did you drop them?”
“Over there in the bushes.” the drunk replies.
“Then why are you looking for them here?”
“Because the light is better here.”
The case for shorter working time was expunged from post-war economic thought because “the math was better” under the light of an assumption that the given hours of work are optimal, rather than that the ideal was a dynamic and progressively declining number of hours.
The radical implications of Chapman’s theory can be hinted at by juxtaposing Chapman’s observation about the ideal working day of the future with Karl Marx’s approving citation in his Economic Manuscript of 1861-63 of the argument from an obscure 1821 pamphlet.
It is my purpose to demonstrate that the non-physiological value of leisure, as well as its physiological value, must rise with progress, and, therefore, that in all probability, the hours which should be worked per day will become steadily less. The ideal working day of the future cannot be eight hours, for it must be essentially a progressive ideal. As a community advances agitation for shorter hours will be constantly breaking out anew [emphasis added].
Marx quoted and then rhapsodized upon the following passage from the 1821 pamphlet, “A nation is really rich if the working day is 6 hours rather than twelve. Wealth is disposable time, and nothing more.” The obscure pamphlet turns out to have been, in Friedrich Engels’ words, “the most advanced outpost of a whole group of writings of the 1820s, which turned the Ricardian theory of value and surplus-value against capitalist production in the interest of the proletariat, and fought the bourgeoisie with its own weapons.” It was also the inspiration for Marx’s own, more famous, analysis of surplus value. What united Chapman, Marx and the anonymous pamphleteer, besides reverence for disposable time, was the notion that collective struggle, rather than individual choice, was the medium through which shorter hours and a better life would be achieved. As a resolution of the First International proclaimed, “the limitation of the working-day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortiveâ€¦”
Before calling in the red squad, though, Canadian humorist and political economist â€“ and Conservative Party campaigner â€“ Stephen Leacock also promoted shorter hours of work as the key component of his proposed solution to the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice while John Maynard Keynes hailed working less as the “ultimate solution” to the long-term problem of full employment. The movement for an eight-hour day was the cornerstone of Samuel Gompers’s “pure and simple unionism,” which is to say the American Federation of Labor. Ira Steward pioneered the philosophy of eight-hours, which in major respects anticipated and prepared the ground for the Roosevelt New Deal of the 1930s. Even Henry Ford touted the advantages of an eight-hour day and a five-day week back when it was heresy to the more respectable spokesmen for business. Strange bedfellows.
It is crucial to understand that “the economic case for shorter hours” has been made many, many times before. It is, perhaps, even more important to realize that the case, or cases, and the making of them, dwell at the core of some of the most profound upheavals in the history of economic thought and in the social history of the last 200 years. It would be presumptuous of me to “make the case” without somehow acknowledging that history. Furthermore, my own field of scholarship bears a peculiarly tangential relationship to that case. What I have studied primarily over the past 14 years has been the economic case against shorter hours, or perhaps I should say more accurately: the economists’ case against the economic case for shorter hours. Opposition research.
My guiding question has not been “what would the benefits be?” I have a shelf full of plausible answers from Arthur Donner, Andrew Jackson, Frank Reid, the Atkinson Foundation, Julie White of the CEP, Francois Aubry of the CSN in Quebec, Bruce O’Hara, Anders Hayden, Conrad Schmidt and Peter Victor â€“ just to mention a few of my Canadian contemporaries and comrades.
Instead, my question has been “what’s the big hold up?” It has been a remarkably fruitful research question. I have two published articles on the alleged economic fallacy of the case for shorter working time and a conference paper documenting the scandalous suppression by mainstream economic discourse of the neoclassical theory of the hours of labour. Economists lied; people died. In the course of my research, I’ve also examined dozens of the cases argued for shorter working time and have been careful to note their similarities and differences. Those cases range, chronologically, from a brief commentary in Thomas Jefferson’s friend, the Marquis de Chastellux’s 1772 Essay on Public Happiness (as in “life, liberty and the pursuit ofâ€¦”) to a short section in the United Nations Environmental Programme’s 2008 report on Green Jobs: Towards Decent Work in a Sustainable, Low Carbon World.
My synthesis of the economic case for shorter work time from the multitude of economic cases for shorter working time arrives at a qualitatively different perspective than the standard economic view. Rather than the dwelling on the material benefits of more free time, higher wages, lower unemployment, improved productivity, better health or reduced greenhouse gas emissions, my synthesis emphasizes the differences between the economic subject implied by or constituted in the body of shorter work time texts and the infamous utility-maximizing homo economicus constituted in the text of mainstream economics. The economic subject of the shorter working time literature is human, whether acting as a collective or as a social individual.
Homo economicus chooses from a cafeteria of ready-made commodities, one of which is labeled “leisure”. Real individuals and collectives struggle for a better standard of living, including free time to become fully developed as human beings. Historical consciousness is a key part of that ongoing struggle. “Wealth is disposable timeâ€¦ and nothing more.”