Fantasizing a world without work is one of our specialties at EverywhereOnce. So when we saw an opinion piece of the same name authored by conservative Times columnist Ross Douthat, it got our attention. Given his predispositions, it’s not surprising that he disapproves of the concept. Given ours, it’s not surprising that we find fault with his reasoning.
He sets out on the wrong track almost immediately by framing his article as a retort to 19th-century utopian leftists, even throwing in a quote from Karl Marx for dramatic affect. But the ideas he takes issue with didn’t start there. Seventy two years before Marx and Engels wrote their Communist Manifesto, Adam Smith described how mechanization diminished the need for human labor.
If, through the use of better tools, a substance farmer doubles his yield, he then only needs to work half as hard to survive. This isn’t some wild notion concocted by Karl Marx, but a simple function of economic productivity. The futurists who imagined a world without work simply foresaw a time when productivity had grown to such a level that all our material needs were met with minimal human effort. It’s a natural enough extrapolation.
Only a strange thing happened on the way to Nirvana. As our capacity to build things grew, our desire to own things grew larger still. The farmer, discontent with merely having enough to eat, used his new tools to produce twice as much food as he needed and then traded the surplus for a larger barn and better clothes. Even after reaching the point of maximum comfort, he still longed for a new category of “designer” item whose only attribute was a price high enough to render it unaffordable to others. Naturally he redoubled his labors so he might acquire that too.
There are, of course, other options. Equipped with his new tools our farmer could have chosen to work half as hard and produce only what he needed. He could use his resulting bounty of spare time to pursue other passions. Instead of being a slave to the field, he’d now have room in his life for art and education, for family and friends, and yes, for community and charity, too.
What’s true for the individual is also true for the nation as a whole. Americans could have made other choices over the decades. Other nations certainly have, to varying degrees. We could have chosen to trade our productivity gains for more free time, but we opted for more income and more of everything else too. We did it so relentlessly that it became commonplace to view our self-worth and our occupation as one and the same.
Some folks have begun to push back against this status quo and that apparently has Ross miffed. He basically sees a voluntary decline in workforce participation as identical to a rise in welfare dependency. Before making that leap, though, a more basic question begs to be answered. And that is whether we, as individuals and as a nation, have made wise choices regarding the tradeoff between work and leisure? Whether reallocating the balance may be both beneficial and desirable? Not to mention whether some of the things he cares about, like community and faith, might be better served if we shifted a little of our time and emphasis away from the office?
Although he never addresses this question, implicit throughout his argument is the notion that perhaps we’re not working enough. Certainly one interpretation of his closing is that human flourishing and fulfillment spring from paid employment:
In a sense, the old utopians were prescient: we’ve gained a world where steady work is less necessary to human survival than ever before.
But human flourishing is another matter. And it’s our fulfillment, rather than the satisfaction of our appetites, that’s threatened by the slow decline of work.”
This, to me, gets things exactly backwards. In my experience work allowed for the expansion of appetites but did so by crowding out every other activity. It left no room for personal flourishing or fulfillment. For that, I had to curb my appetites and leave the regular job behind.