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In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell (1932) [pdf] (libcom.org)
161 points by jacobsimon on Feb 7, 2015 | hide | past | web | favorite | 50 comments



I have attempted to portray similar ideas, in regards to a universal wage, to friends and family. Each time I'm met with "What stops some people from not working" and they refuse to move past that. They see people who work less, or don't work as a detriment to society.

What sort of changes can be made to change people's viewpoint on hard work as a virtue?


I always pitch universal wage and refusal of work to most people with whom I have meaningful conversations. By their reaction I'm certain that these ideas will be unpopular for the rest of our lifetime.

The best you can do is to keep preaching them if you believe in them. If the other person is a thinker, most people don't want to be thinkers, you might try to pitch them post-scarcity economics or explain that historically people never worked as much as they do nowadays. Also explain that most human progress came from 'play time' not 'work time'.

You won't change the world, just accept that, the world does not want to be changed. Most people invest a lot of effort in complying with the status quo. It takes generations to change this kind of social conventions.

Also,

"Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban ... At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question... Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals ... If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." -George Orwell


My wife and I travel a great deal and have had the chance to spend at least a little time in relatively undeveloped areas where people still fish, farm and so on to provide some or all of their regular diet.

Note that it being a primarily agrarian situation is important. The situation is very different for poor people working in factories for example.

>or explain that historically people never worked as much as they do nowadays

One striking thing is how much free time people in these areas have. Particularly in the afternoon its really common to see lots of people (children, adults and old people) simply hanging out.

Typically they have very limited capacity to store food so once you have enough fish for the next day or two, for example, there is very little value in catching any more. Although there are periods of very hard work (planting crops and harvesting crops in particular) there are plenty of occasions when the day's work is done relatively quickly. Your home is adequate against the weather, firewood is adequately stockpiled and your family's food supply is secure for the near to medium term so there is little value in performing additional work.


But their life expectancy is lower and elder people live with their their children. They have no healthcare and a low level education.

All these things make it so that a person or family is much more independent of their government.

They might have more free time but they don't have a lot of the other things that contribute to the quality of life we have in the western world.

It's disingenuous to think that it is possible to have a universal salary while maintaining a decent quality of life.


I really think we have to pitch it along the lines of the Alaska permanent fund (which is in fact a guaranteed minimum income, just smaller in magnitude than what most people think of) and is never opposed by anyone ever.

For example, it might be more politically palatable to say,

"Dear John Doe, here is your check for the oil and coal revenues that were collected in your name from beneath your homeland. Also there is some money from the toll bridges that we operate for you and the sales taxes we collected in your name from merchants operating in your area. Btw's we also gave the same check to all your neighbors because they live here too."


>The best you can do is to keep preaching them if you believe in them.

Why not just start now? There's not much standing in the way of a group of people voluntarily providing a minimum income to impoverished people right now.

I honestly don't intend this as a snarky response. I'm genuinely curious if supporters of minimum income would provide someone else a minimum income voluntarily, right now.


Well, my country does provide a minimum income. It's called 'Rendimento mínimo garantido'.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guaranteed_minimum_income


Maybe there are a portion of people who are allergic to productivity. Not just work, but doing anything of import or use. No matter what social pressures there might be, they will always shirk responsibility, do the bare minimum or even less, and never have greater ambitions. The type of people who will always wait to take the garbage out until someone stands over them and doesn't leave until they've done it.

I don't agree that these people are very many. I think they're extraordinarily rare, but it makes us feel better about ourselves if we think that they are common, and we have managed to rise above the common.

But regardless, if they don't want to be doing anything worthwhile, and they're willing to accept the many social and economic consequences of that (no fun vacations, very hard time finding a partner, no gadgets or new cool stuff, no fancy dinners out), then I'd rather not force them to work side by side with people who want to be there. Give them a universal income, so they can rent a roof over their head, buy somes clothes and food, and then leave them be.


I don't think people are static objects. Even if you've come into contact with one of these "types" of people, chances are that they are living on a meager amount of energy.

When people are energy drained, they are either in poor health mentally, emotionally, socially, or physically.

They might have expended an extraordinary amount of energy into something with no compensation. They might have broken their bodies, minds, and hearts over the kind of work they do.

The human evaluation of what constitutes as value added to society is not perfect. The human evaluation of what to do is not perfect. Sometimes people just don't know what to do.

Also, social pressure shouldn't be the motivator. That's motivation that comes from fear. It is literally like living solely for the sake of dying, and all I can do is feel a tremendous amount of pain for people if they experience such a thing.


(no fun vacations, very hard time finding a partner, no gadgets or new cool stuff, no fancy dinners out).

Those are trivialities in my subjective opinion.


I took it as examples. Ways one might enjoy the fruits of their labor in the context of modern western society.

Your reply made me realize another way to think of it though. If all these things we spend money on are trivial, then that supports the notion. Money is a poor measure of one's productivity.


Having a very hard time finding a partner is a triviality in your opinion? If so, I suspect that puts you in a very small minority.


That one kind of sticks out as being rather disconnected from the rest.

I think his point is that most people don't work for fancy holidays or trinkets or whatever.

Most people work to put a roof over their head and eat. Everything else is secondary - both trivial in terms of desire (it's less important), and trivial in terms of cost (a new 24" LCD might cost 3 days rent in some areas)


I don't think that is really true. If all people were working for was a roof over their head and food, they could get by on very little.

Most people work because they want to live in an expensive neighborhood and like to have new cars, new clothes, new electronics. Otherwise they would move somewhere where house is extremely cheap and where they don't have to commute every day.

I don't know how it is in the US, but here in Germany you can have an apartment in a medium sized city and food for 500 Euro a month. You don't have to work for 40 hours a week to make that much.


I don't want to live where I do because it's an expensive neighbourhood. I want to live where I do because it's where everyone I know lives. Living somewhere else would mean abandoning friends and family.

Fundamentally that's the only thing that stops me from leaving the UK this second.

You make it sound as if it's an innate desire to feel important by living in a fancy place.


>> "...innate desire to feel important by living in a fancy place."

But that desire for importance is a thing, too. How else do we explain all the transplants moving to drastically-overpriced Williamsburg/Bushwick without knowing a soul?


> Most people work because they want to live in an expensive neighborhood

So, to put a roof over their head. Hey, no one said they had to go for the cheapest roof! :)


I think 'hard work as a virtue' is a misguided way of thinking about it.

It's about the judgement call of deciding that a person should suffer as a result of their actions (or personality, if outside their control).

I think that working hard is a virtue. I think that doing whatever you do, a lot, and well, makes you a better person. Regardless of what that is.

What that doesn't mean is that I think those incapable or unwilling to do so should either starve and die, or work in terrible conditions. They are human beings, they deserve better, and we can provide that without great sacrifice.


Remind them that they don't know how to program and probably won't have a job in ten years.


Lots of programmers won't have jobs in ten years. What, you think Amazon are going to stop when they've put all the sysadmins out of work?


Programmers have been writing code that automates their own work ever since the first assembler.


There's actually a very good argument in favor of BI that is compatible with (and even supported by) the "hard work as a virtue" philosophy.

Supply and Demand.

Making food/shelter/etc contingent upon working forces everybody to work, fixing the supply of labor. The relative demand for labor decreases over time due to automation. If we stay the course, capitalism will desperately try to fix the supply/demand imbalance by penalizing all workers, hardworking and lazy alike, for supplying a service not in demand. Wages will decrease until the supply of labor is reduced by any means necessary (i.e. some will leave the workforce and resort to resort to begging, bumming off of neighbors, crime).

Rather than artificially fixing the supply of labor at an arbitrary level and penalizing people for their honest work until some give up, it's better to "buy out" the laziest among us. Sure they won't be contributing to society, but at least they won't prevent others from receiving fair compensation which is exactly what happens in the otherwise inevitable race to the bottom.


> Rather than artificially fixing the supply of labor at an arbitrary level and penalizing people for their honest work until some give up, it's better to "buy out" the laziest among us. Sure they won't be contributing to society, but at least they won't prevent others from receiving fair compensation which is exactly what happens in the otherwise inevitable race to the bottom.

I feel like you are missing the point that the "bottom" (lazy? I would most likely disagree...lazy + unfortunate genes / birth status / location perhaps) has a much better, easier, fairer chance (in obvious unison with a reduction of unemployment,) given organizations reduce the time worked per day, thus opening up opportunities for currently employed (more leisure time) and the unemployed (the jobless)

That's not to say this model has severe flaws. It's more utopian than what are we faced in capitalist societies now, but goes against business profit maximization, which I'll simplify in a useful manner: organizations like to hire as few people as possible and use as much of their leisure time as possible in order to reduce benefits expected by most workers increasingly expensive benefits that they've come to expect in long term cushy jobs.

The recent uptick in free lance jobs is rough for this very reason. It's less risky to sell most your leisure time to large companies.

That's my personal diagnosis. As for my solution...the the non risk averse must continue(create) their own entrepreneurship endeavors and as the older generation dies out, destroy the [8-9]-[5-6] scourge imbued unto us by unionized industrialists of the past and craft new culture. Keep companies running smoothly with more employees working less time. Any opinions/counterpoints would be appreciated. I'd perhaps be considered an idealist with high expectations of the future.

P.S Long time lurking/reading here on HN and finally beginning to post. Always appreciate the comment threads more than any other web site.


I should have scare-quoted "lazy" to make it more clear that I meant it in the tongue-in-cheek sense.

I'll grant you that the Mandatory Minimum Work Week (MMWW) is a plausible alternative to Basic Income (BI) with two caveats. One, that you would probably want to implement it more as "Mandatory Minimum Vacation" so as to leave alone jobs that fundamentally require time blocks of a certain size and two, instead of a strict rule use progressive fees for violation so that the incentive landscape can accommodate exceptional circumstances. For the sake of brevity let's call this "MMWW+".

> I feel like you are missing the point that the "bottom" has a much better, easier, fairer chance

That's a statement, not an argument. If you can back it up I'd be interested, because the only tiebreaking argument I've heard between BI and MMWW+ favors BI due to efficiency. MMWW+ cuts a swath through the whole labor force resulting in a very uneven effect across professions. Surgeons already make $500k/yr, what will happen if you effectively cut the surgeon labor supply by 10%? Either a huge price shock or they pay the fees for violating MMWW+, and those costs are going to get conveyed right back to the consumer due to relative elasticity. Contrast to BI which effectively identifies the component of the labor force which is cheapest to remove and addresses it in particular while more or less leaving everyone else alone (modulo a small bump towards the mean which you can eliminate if you so choose at the expense of damping marginal incentives somewhere near the bottom).

> [MMWW is] more utopian than what are we faced in capitalist societies now, but goes against business profit maximization

BI, MMWW, MMWW+, and all other alternative schemes run contrary to current vested interests. Since the cost is common to all of them it should not affect an analysis of which one is best unless we have reason to believe that one is significantly more palatable than another. For instance, MI>BI and MMWW+>MMWW but I don't see a compelling reason to believe that MI>MMWW+ or MI<MMWW+.

> The recent uptick in free lance jobs is rough for this very reason. It's less risky to sell most your leisure time to large companies. That's my personal diagnosis.

"Diagnosis" implies identification of a root cause, but that seems more like an effect, and I'm not sure how it fits in to your larger argument.

> destroy the [8-9]-[5-6] scourge imbued unto us by unionized industrialists of the past and craft new culture.

You realize that workdays were longer before the unions forced the "scourge" onto the industrialists, right? They argued for the exact same thing that you argue for, and for the exact same reason.

> the non risk averse must continue(create) their own entrepreneurship endeavors

The single most convincing argument I've heard in favor of BI / MI is that in reduces risks associated with entrepreneurship and lengthens runways, even for professions that don't command a large salary.


Sounds like mandatory maximum rather than minimum? You're limiting from above not from below.


Yep, too late to edit though. It's annoying that they both start with the same letter because otherwise I probably would have noticed :)


> Each time I'm met with "What stops some people from not working" and they refuse to move past that.

Ask them how they feel about retirement. I think you'll find that most people aren't against all forms of idleness, just ones they perceive as involuntarily financed by others.


> Ask them how they feel about retirement. I

And then ask them how their retirement will be financed. In the case of most people, a large (but shrinking over time) portion of their retirement will be funded by their fellow citizens, who pay for their retirement involuntarily.


>>What sort of changes can be made to change people's viewpoint on hard work as a virtue?

It goes beyond that. Work is defined as some thing you do to get other stuff in return. Once that is defined, we are always going to have people who want more things than others. So you will always have people do more work.

Even at a basic income you will always have people complain that they are unable to afford things rich people can. And that will be the new definition of inequality.


This won't convince your friends but it might help people who already get it go deeper: http://vimeo.com/25367464 (Bifo Berardi)

Also his manifesto: http://www.generation-online.org/p/fp_bifo5.htm


if a person doesn't work and isn't ok with dying from starvation, then he necessarily becomes dependent on other people. i think it's pretty reasonable to expect people to work for their necessities. "hard work" is another matter.


At this point in time, the technology required for autonomously producing food has already been available for some time.

At the moment, there are still a significant portion of the population employed in architecture, but by applying the technology developed for self-driving cars for e.g., that number can be reduced signficantly.


I like "How to Be Idle"/ Tom Hodgkinson

"From the founding editor of The Idler, the celebrated magazine about the freedom and fine art of doing nothing, comes not simply a book, but an antidote to our work-obsessed culture. In How to Be Idle, Tom Hodgkinson presents his learned yet whimsical argument for a new universal standard of living: being happy doing nothing. He covers a whole spectrum of issues affecting the modern idler—sleep, work, pleasure, relationships—while reflecting on the writing of such famous apologists for it as Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Nietzsche—all of whom have admitted to doing their very best work in bed"


Thanks for the book recommendation.

Noticed from your profiler that you are Montréalais like me :)

I truly believe that growing up in Montreal, rather than almost any other North American city, makes one far more likely to appreciate funemployment. How blessed we are.


There are all different types of work, with different 'rewards'

- Work for the mind - mental brain training. Reward: Getting a leg up on your competitors. In the caveman days; different language hacks meant tribes could figure out how best to kill prey, and hunt a lot better. These days, the task of hunting has been abstracted away by a Mc Meal™. The thrill of the hunt could be lost?

- Work for the body - getting fit. Reward: Physical strength, stamina, and endurance. Johhny emissions wastes $20.00 to get his Mc Meal™, gets a bad back from sitting in a car, and leads an otherwise sedentary life. If Johhny walked, he could get fit, boost his endorphins, and have the added bonus of burning off a Mc Meal™ a lot faster.

- Work for others - Helping others out. Reward: Feeling good. Endorphins, confidence, self-worth, creating joy for others. Johnny doesn't help others. He's an Internet troll leaving racist remarks on Youtube and Twitter all day. His sleep suffers because of that. He becomes cagey around others, and rarely looks others in the eye. Johnny helper takes joy knowing that another line of code in the Git repo helps about a million people live their life better. Johhny helper ignores the comment sections in websites, and knows a problem can't be solved on the same plane it was created.


If anyone is interested in reading more about 'Refusal of Work' - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Refusal_of_work - I would recommend

The Right To Be Lazy (1883) by Paul Lafarge

The Abolition of Work (1985) by Bob Black


BI is a massive political hurdle. A much smaller one is:

1. Dismantling the disincentives to hiring more people for fewer hours each

2. Dismantle the "40 hours is full time" as a legal fence that prevents people from wanting to drop under it (sharp benefit cut offs instead of gradual phase outs)


I think the hurdles or disincentives to hire more people are more structural or inherent than they are legal.

In a lot of types of work, it's wildly more efficient to have fewer people do the work. Imagine if your development team of 5, each working 40-ish hours a week became a development team of 20, each working 10-ish hours a week. Progress would grind to a halt because most of the time would be spent on coordination. Every minute of coordination (standups, etc) is now 4x as expensive, and you probably need 4x as many minutes at a minimum. Everyone has to come up the learning curve, so your organization learns at 1/4 the speed (on an hourly basis), etc.

I can readily see how production-type work could be reasonably efficient with fewer hours and more workers, but even there, I'd still prefer to employ fewer workers, paying them more, and selecting from the top quartile of the workforce, who may be willing to trade more hours per week in exchange for a shorter working career in years.


While I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment I think a lot of the economic thinking is a bit too simplistic, especially in our current age. For example, whether you invest in your government or not, your government will still be able to find funds for the war chest, by printing money if nothing else (or as it works nowadays, the central bank buying government securities). Another problem I can identify is that some hard work requires a lot education, we need nurses for example. What would happen if nurses only worked 20 hour weeks? Maybe there's a clever answer for this too, but I think we really need to think hard about this before we advocate anything politically. It makes a lot of sense to promote idleness as a virtue though, so go on and praise play (it is the hacker way, after all)!


For example, whether you invest in your government or not, your government will still be able to find funds for the war chest, by printing money if nothing else

That's a bit of a simplistic view of "government" as well, though. I mean, Greece's would certainly like to print some money right now :)


Yes, that's true, I also thought of the ECB hindering many national governments from doing this. But if Greece decided that it was time for war, they'd probably pull out of the euro project.

My point was that the economic model presented was too simplistic, that my model is also too simplistic doesn't distract from that point too much in my opinion.


> Throughout Europe, though not in America, there is a third class of men, more respected than either of the classes of workers. There are men who, through ownership of land, are able to make others pay for the privilege of being allowed to exist and to work.

It almost sounds like they are talking about the creators of mobile ecosystems, or about the gatekeepers of the internet.


The moral basis of the work is its repudiation of various parasite classes: priests, warriors, rentiers, even Party apparatchiks (albeit only in a footnote).

And yet it never stops to wonder why these parasites keep recurring, or how they might use these very arguments to recur again, or what might be done about that.


In the US, the self-proclaimed hardest workers are the conservative Republicans and they support the Church and the Industry of War like no one else. Besides, aren't the scientists today's clergy?


Bertrand Russell worked hard to write that. Work that we love to do falls into a different category.


He was also a member of the leisure class - as a member of the Peerage. His grandfather was the Earl Russell and his father was a Viscount. Bertrand became 3rd Earl Russell in 1931 and that is the backbone of this essay.

By then he had been jailed for Pacifism, written Principia Mathematics, and been Wittgenstein's doctoral advisor. And his most productive years still lay ahead.


"One of Marx’s greatest insights, delivered in an early book known as the 1844 Manuscripts, is that work can be one of the sources of our greatest joys."

[1]: http://www.thebookoflife.org/the-great-philosophers-karl-mar...


Indeed, Russell is famously misquoted[1] as having said "Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time".

[1] http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/06/11/time-you-enjoy/


Didn't know this was a misquote. Thanks. Still, it fits great in this thread's context obviously.

Although I like and appreciate the point of it, this time one enjoys "wasting" shouldn't have initially been labelled wasted if it was actually enjoyed. Maybe I'm picking on the words too much.

Perhaps this quote is intended to invoke a sense of strange loopiness. It's a proper defense to those who might feel guilty for being the type of idle that Russel describes. Once understanding it, one must wash away any notion (or criticism from society) that they are wasting time.


[deleted]


In Praise of Idleness is not in that book.




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