In Praise of Idleness

It makes good sense for the slave master to persuade his slaves that idleness is a sin and he’s doing god’s work when he flogs the slaves to work harder. The harder the slaves work, the more the master can take for himself. But of course the real motive has to be concealed and clothed in moral raiment.

“Work hard, you b*tches, and stop complaining.” That’s what Mohandas Gandhi meant but put it so very piously by saying, “Purity of mind and idleness are incompatible.” See what I mean?

Hypocrisy among the privileged never ceases to amaze. Poverty and suffering are good for the soul of the poor, the leathery old saint Teresa declared while amassing wealth for her daddy — papa, pope — in Rome, who lives in luxury in a gilded palace and preaches the virtues of poverty and simple living. The congenitally stupid swallow that vacuous nonsense approvingly.

Politicians are masters of that game. They hate people being idle. They cannot take what the people don’t produce. Lazy people enjoying leisure are hard to  steal from tax. Hence the moral judgement against laziness made by politicians because they want the products of other people’s labor.

Government is the overlord, and the people mere minions. That’s my claim in the previous post which was addressed to someone who was horrified by the idea that people should be given access to their own wealth to which they have an urgent and legitimate claim. Akshar wrote a nice comment to that post in which he pointed out (among other things) —

In communist societies governments say that being lazy is a crime. Of course they meant you should be working for government without any measurable compensation or else you are lazy. This sort of propaganda is a hallmark of most third world countries with oppressive governments and societies.

Akshar helpfully provided the Gandhi quote above about purity and idleness. Ever willing to pass judgements on everything under the sun, Gandhi was wrong in associating idleness with some kind of moral failing. The aversion to needless hard work and the inclination to be lazy by some has much to do with the progress of civilization as does hard work by the many others. People who want to get things done with the least effort are motivated to invent technology which eventually increases everyone’s productivity.

I prefer to live in a society which has many lazy but smart people rather than in a society full of hard-working idiots.

Smart but lazy people invent productivity-enhancing technology. With productivity increases, more stuff gets produced per unit of effort expended. Then you can choose whether to continue working or to enjoy more leisure. The important point is that you get to choose: to work or not to work. Societies that provide that choice are necessarily better than those that don’t.

High productivity societies produce more disposable wealth. That wealth can support innovators and entrepreneurs. That leads to a positive cycle of development and growth. These societies characteristically recognize private property, engage in voluntary Pareto optimal[1] exchanges, and severely limit the power of governments. Basically, the opposite of what happens in India.

Bertrand Russell was a very smart cookie. He of the Principia Mathematica fame (co-authored with Alfred North Whitehead, another smartie.) In 1932 he wrote a nice little essay “In Praise of Idleness.”

“A great deal of harm is being done in the modern world by belief in the virtuousness of work, and that the road to happiness and prosperity lies in an organized diminution of work,” wrote he. That attitude about work is of course diametrically opposite to Gandhi’s, and naturally so since Gandhi was not the sharpest knife  in the kitchen.

Gandhi would have said that work is your duty. Here’s Russell:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own. Of course the holders of power conceal this fact from themselves by managing to believe that their interests are identical with the larger interests of humanity.

… Because work is a duty, and a man should not receive wages in proportion to what he has produced, but in proportion to his virtue as exemplified by his industry.

This is the morality of the Slave State, applied in circumstances totally unlike those in which it arose.

… The idea that the poor should have leisure has always been shocking to the rich. In England, in the early nineteenth century, fifteen hours was the ordinary day’s work for a man; children sometimes did as much, and very commonly did twelve hours a day. When meddlesome busybodies suggested that perhaps these hours were rather long, they were told that work kept adults from drink and children from mischief. When I was a child, shortly after urban working men had acquired the vote, certain public holidays were established by law, to the great indignation of the upper classes. I remember hearing an old Duchess say: ‘What do the poor want with holidays? They ought to work.’ 

In any case, Russell was a first rate mathematician and philosopher but really was not very good in economics. That’s a real pity because he had the brains to be a fine economist. So I would caution you against taking his economics very seriously.

It would be a good exercise for any budding economist to read Russell’s essay on idleness and figure out which bits in it indicate that Russell did not understand basic economics.


[1] “Pareto optimal” is a favorite phrase of mine. I learned it when I started studying economics. It refers to the Italian economist Wilfredo Pareto. A situation is Pareto optimal when you cannot make someone better off without making someone worse off. Therefore, if a situation is not Pareto optimal, then you can make someone better off without making anyone worse off. When trade between two parties conclude, it follows that they have arrived at a Pareto optimal outcome. That means all gains from trade have been exhausted.

Author: Atanu Dey


2 thoughts on “In Praise of Idleness”

    1. Yes, capitalism is “tolerant” of sloth. Under capitalism, if I don’t want to work, I don’t have to work. Under collectivization (socialism/communism), you are forced to work because if you don’t then you are not contributing to the greater good.

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