Richard Posner vs. Leisure Time

Richard Posner has a review at the New York Times responding to How Much is Enough?, a book by Robert and Edward Skidelsky that makes the argument that society would be better off if we used our wealth to dramatically cut work hours and increase leisure time:

The Skidelskys have an exalted conception of leisure. They say that the true sense of the word is “activity without extrinsic end”: “The sculptor engrossed in cutting marble, the teacher intent on imparting a difficult idea, the musician struggling with a score, a scientist exploring the mysteries of space and time — such people have no other aim than to do what they are doing well.” That isn’t true….

But here is the oddest thing about the book: There is virtually no discussion of how people, their incomes halved, might be expected to employ the vastly greater leisure that the authors want them to have. Besides the sentence I quoted about the musician, sculptor, teacher and scientist — and the description is of their work, not of their leisure activities — there is a suggestion that a good leisure activity is letting one’s mind wander “freely and aimlessly,” and a list of three recreations — “playing football in the park, making and decorating one’s own furniture, strumming the guitar with friends” — offered to refute any contention that the authors’ conception of leisure is “narrowly highbrow.”

Posner himself offers some feeble arguments (“Nations would be defenseless, with soldiers who were on duty only 20 hours a week”), but in general it’s a pretty good takedown. I’m sympathetic to arguments that cultural or economic factors pull a bit hard in the “work” direction over other activities whose value is less monetizable; but the Skidelskys show some of the hazards in being on my side of the fence. I find it plausible to focus on the tight constraints people face in choosing working and lifestyle arrangements that suit their preferences; the Skidelskys argument is at best underdeveloped, but implies that people’s preferences and values are themselves incorrect. As Posner says, they’re right to say that we could have incomes equivalent to those of the 1920s by working fewer hours; most of us just want more.

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2 Responses to Richard Posner vs. Leisure Time

  1. Rob T. says:

    Here’s a link to an even better takedown that completely demolishes Posner and his apologists: .

    My favorite lines:

    “Mr. Posner’s response is […] keep them working, even in more and more meaningless jobs. Where Mr. Posner sees endless boredom in leisure, he finds no such boredom in the servants jobs proliferating across our post-industrial economy.”

  2. kf says:

    With the caveat that I haven’t read the book or the review:
    I think it’s important for people who love their jobs (read: Posner) to over-correct for their biases. In other words, anyone who can write/talk about these issues as part of their job probably loves their job, and should work at maintaining the awareness that most people hate their jobs.