On Sunday, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat published an editorial about how the lower classes are working fewer hours while the rich are working longer hours. Let’s gallop past the quasi-Charles-Murray pop sociological analysis that concludes that the wealthy are more industrious and moral than the poor. Douthat attempts to link the wish/forecast of 19th century utopians of a world free of toil with what he perceives as another sign that the social fabric is eroding further.
Douthat concludes that “there is a certain air of irresponsibility to giving up on employment altogether.” He admits that pundits like him “aren’t the ones stocking shelves at Walmart” or looking for a job “that probably pays less than our last one did.” Yet he exhorts the working poor to work, even at “a grinding job,” because work is its own reward. By his lights, people should happily do unpleasant, low-wage work with no hope of advancement because work is inherently ennobling.
Although there are many problems with his analysis, let’s look at his core illogic. He conflates work with drudgery. The hope and goal of utopians like Edward Bellamy was that technology and more humane forms of economic organization would eliminate exactly the kind of work that Douthat thinks the working poor should still do cheerfully. Conversely, the affluent work longer hours because what they do is intellectually or financially rewarding. This is exactly what the utopians hoped for—a world free of toil where everyone has interesting and rewarding work.
Nobody today asks what the utopians asked: What is the economy for? We blindly pursue economic growth, even when it does not increase our happiness and threatens the planet. But the utopians had an answer: The economy is our way of satisfying our material and spiritual wants sustainably with ever decreasing effort.
But Douthat is not all wrong. He says that for Marx the ideal workday was “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.” Americans in the 19th century often referred to “improving” their leisure time by improving themselves: reading history and philosophy or writing letters to loved ones. Our modern forms of leisure would strike them as wasteful and perhaps immoral abuses of our affluence.
I wrote about the history of technological unemployment in a previous post. Because of the mass media and commercialized entertainment, our increased affluence is just as likely to give us the world of Brave New World or Player Piano. We are more likely to spend our leisure time narcotizing rather than improving ourselves.