Leisure, widely-shared, has been the unfulfilled promise of economic development, a reward for mankind’s achievement in (as John Maynard Keynes put it) “solving its economic problem”.L195 Some of the makers of the Industrial Revolution looked forward to the day when hard work would be over, and society could devote itself to leisure. “Men and women”, it was confidently forecast by a writer in the Democratic Review in 1853, “will then have no harassing cares or laborious duties to fulfil. Machinery will perform all work—automata will direct them. The only task of the human race will be to make love, study and be happy.”L196

And yet, in a competitive market economy, a large amount of roughly-equally-shared leisure time—say, a three-day working week or less—is hard to sustain, because any individuals who decide to instead work a full week can produce for a lower price (by working longer hours than the competition they can produce a greater quantity of goods and services, and thus earn the same wage by selling each one more cheaply). These more competitive people would then be fully employed, and would put the more leisurely out of business completely. Consider, for example, this thought-experiment:


The case of the vanishing economy

Imagine that there is an economy of 100 people (all in their dual role as producers and consumers). Add three strong assumptions:

1. They are consuming the maximum they want to consume: if they had more money, they would not increase their consumption.

This might be because, for instance, producers and consumers alike want to reduce their carbon footprint, or because consumers are feeling insecure and want to save any extra money, or because they use all their additional income competing for non-produced positional goods (those goods that by definition cannot be exclusively owned by every individual, such as unique and irreplaceable artefacts, works of art or houses in particular locations), which is simply a more roundabout way of increasing the level of savings.

2. They never believe each other’s promises.

3. There are no unemployment benefits, so that the out-of-work die.

Now imagine that this miniature economy abruptly experiences a shock: there is a technological advance that doubles productivity, so that the 100 workers now produce twice as much as they did before, but consumers (by assumption) do not consume more, so overall consumption remains unchanged. What happens?

Well, the doubled productivity means that now only 50 people are needed to produce enough for 100, so half the workforce becomes unemployed. There are no unemployment benefits, so they die.

That leaves 50 producers/consumers. They are still working to the same (doubled) level of productivity, so they produce enough for 100. This is twice as much as is now needed, so half of them become unemployed and die. That leaves 25 producers/consumers. And so on . . .

Now, if they were sensible, they would all decide to work half-time. That would give them the same quantity of goods as they would get if half of them worked full-time, and it would share out the leisure. But they do not do that because they can’t get an agreement to stick; they are conditioned by the market economy; they have to be competitive, and cannot forgo an immediate advantage from which they would individually benefit in favour of a future (and larger) advantage from which everyone would benefit.

Competition now becomes a curse, frustrating all efforts at accommodation, but people are programmed to think only in those reductive terms. And that has particularly regrettable consequences if they are in a system which, when it is stressed, can become unstable.

Thus, George realises that if he works half-time, Jack can steal a march on him and work full-time, earning twice the money, selling his product at half price, and putting George out of business. Everyone is scared of opportunists like Jack, and they blame each other for “forcing” them to behave in this way; they dare not trust each other, so they cannot take the simple step needed to solve their problem and enjoy leisurely lives (this is a version of the “Prisoner’s Dilemma”, see sidebar below).

This is why it is difficult to sustain a part-time, slack economy. There are obvious practical reasons too: it would be hard for pianists, brain surgeons, tennis champions and others with skilled jobs to maintain the standard they need if they only worked part-time; and challenging to monitor the working hours of the self-employed, such as writers, who work at home. Unannounced visits by time-wardens might be viewed with concern and would anyway be less than fair, since the working hours of the less-skilled jobs (e.g., waiters) could more easily be monitored than the more-skilled ones (e.g., philosophers).

But the deeper problem is that agreements on self-denying measures—such as shorter working time, or a deliberately inefficient technology, both of which require people to forgo immediate advantage—are hard to sustain. Everyone who stays within the limit, forgoing the opportunity to be more competitive, is a potential sucker. That is the core, enduring ethic of the market.

When you can’t trust people to choose what is best for everyone

The Prisoner’s Dilemma is an allegory (told in many different versions) of two suspects that are being separately questioned about a crime which, in reality, they committed together. If they both deny it, then (since there is no proof) they will be allowed to go free. However, denying it is quite risky for both of them because if (say) George denies it and Jack confesses, George will be shot (and Jack will only get a ten-year prison sentence, as a reward for pleading guilty). They cannot talk to each other, nor trust each other to deny the crime, so they both end up confessing it and going to prison. If only they could have trusted each other, they would both have been let off. The problem is that the ideal solution is ruled out as suicidal unless some special reassurance—a binding declaration of honour among thieves—had been made in advance. It would have had to be quite a performance—an oath of undying loyalty, not just a fix-up in the pub.L197


In the Lean Economy, however, that problem need not apply in the case of working time, for three reasons.

First, the aim is not, in essence, to reduce working hours; it is to build the informal and local economy to the point that it meets the wants and needs which the declining market is conspicuously unable to provide. Indeed, the whole discussion of work and leisure makes more sense when it starts with the aim of increasing working time in the informal economy, rather than of reducing working time in the formal economy, which is on course to decline whether we want it to or not.

Secondly, the Lean Economy will be fully aware that there are other ways of inhibiting economic growth: the use of labour-intensive methods, the selection of technologies for their minimal environmental impact rather than for their productivity, the discarding of surpluses (Intentional Waste) and various other strategies within the range of options open to the slack economy. It is unlikely that they will be needed to end the growth of the formal economy, but they will certainly be applied in the informal economy of the future.

Thirdly, the Lean Economy is built on a strong culture and on social capital, underwriting a shared sense of common purpose and enabling it to make decisions that stick: it can sustain desirable aims such as more leisure time if it needs to do so. If the sophisticated information and energy technology of our time continues to be available, the way is open in principle for a benign and positive progress towards the steady state economy; technical advance can in this context open the way to reduced working time without the initiative collapsing in disarray. This is a society that can implement its decision to enjoy ever-increasing leisure with each advance in technology. Result: a culturally-rich, steady state, systems-literate, resilient political economy . . .


. . . at least, in principle. But the instability never goes away. Still, it is a core aim of lean economics to keep its choices and arrangements from unravelling, to restore to human society the power of decision, instead of being subject to the turbulence of competition and the opportunism of price. With a strongly developed culture, built on a well-articulated grammar of scale, it is possible. A decision to work shorter hours, the use of labour-intensive methods that can be done lovingly and in a closed-loop system—these freedoms are waiting to be rediscovered.

There are snags, of course. Living in a slack economy, supported by the culture rather than by opportunism, is a skilled task. Many of the abilities needed for it are best learned in childhood. The potential for play, judgment, imagination and manners must be activated early in life if they are to develop properly, but the narrow targets-based education of the market economy passes them by. This means that more leisure could short-circuit miserably into poverty and resentment. Or it could be sucked up by addiction to television and its related media, through which the time available to make a personal commitment to social capital or to a new political-economic order is diminished. Having to build a new social order from the foundations is a challenge. When the builders don’t turn up, the challenge is greater.

The other major snag is that the advanced technologies may not be available (Appropriate Technology, Climacteric).

And yet, the possibility of a culture-rich, technically-advanced, sustainable political economy, with the key accomplishment of slack—with time to think—is there.


Related entries:

Trust, Slack and Taut, Growth, Informal Economy.

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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