A few days ago I was writing about Libertarianism and liberty.

I said that human beings have to work to survive. There is, at any one time, some minimal amount of work they have to do in order to live a very simple, no-frills life. Their time is divided into busy working time and idle time. When they’re at work they’re doing things like digging fields, and chopping wood, and other essential work. When they’re idle, they can do whatever they like. Like sit and smoke a pipe.

The fraction of their time that is idle is what I call “idleness”. This idle time is also known as “free time”, and it is the basis of any liberty anyone may enjoy. No leisure/idle time = no free time = no liberty. So liberty isn’t something that everybody’s handed on a plate. It’s actually something that they have to continually work to produce. We’re not free agents: we’re part-time free agents. What we’re going to be doing when we’re busy working is already spoken for. It’s only in our idle time that we’re free to do as we like.

Nevertheless, whenever people talk about freedom, I always get the sense that they regard themselves as completely free all day every day, as if all their time was idle time, and all of life was leisure. They often speak of freedom as absence of coercion, as if people are free when nobody’s pushing them around at the point of a gun. But, as I see it, take away the gun, and what people have isn’t complete freedom, but the freedom that their idleness permits them.

Economists very often talk this way quite explicitly. They very often regard complete leisure as the datum of human life. This leisure is then foregone making things which provide pleasure or satisfaction. It always strikes me as a vision of a playground world in which people make and sell each other pretty things, like necklaces and perfumes and footballs and After Eight chocolates. In a playground world, the only things on sale are toys and luxuries and amusements.

In fact it seems to me that most current political problems grow out of seeing life as a playground, and the economy as a sort of game that we all play, making and selling each other pretty things. And we can change the rules of the game. Socialists, for example, are people who believe that all we need to do to make a better and fairer game, is to change the rules of our current game of Capitalism to those of a new game called Socialism. All concerned seem to believe that we can change the rules in whatever way we like, and that all that’s needed for the new game to be successful is for everyone to agree to a new set of rules. But the Socialists are opposed by people who like the game of Capitalism, and don’t want anyone taking away their freedom to play their preferred game. They talk a lot about a “free society” and a “free market”. They often talk about “level playing fields” as well. And they say that in all games there are “winners and losers”, and the Socialist game in which everyone wins is a lousy game. Playing “competitive games” is, they insist, ordinary human nature. Socialist games would always be boring 5-5 draws.

I sometimes think that competitive games like football and rugby are as important as they are in modern culture precisely because they ritually portray the world as people imagine it to be: as a game, and as a competitive game.

Yet this is a comparatively new phenomenon. Football clubs only started springing up in the late 19th century, which is when the Football Association was first formed. Somehow or other, the English don’t seem to have played very much football before then. All these games – cricket, football, rugby, golf, etc – seem to have made their appearance around about the same time.

Games like football and cricket and golf require a lot of idle time, and one of the simplest explanations why the mediaeval English weren’t spending much of their time playing these sorts of games was because they didn’t have sufficient idle time in which to play them. Mediaeval life was busy, hard-working life. And because it was busy, they didn’t have many luxuries either.

In mediaeval times, most English people lived on the land. The cities were comparatively small. It required a lot of labour to work the land, ploughing, hoeing, weeding, watering, reaping, threshing. Most of the work was done with hand tools like pitchforks and spades and sickles. But sometime in the 18th century new-fangled steam engines began to be used to do a lot of the heavy manual farm work in place of manual labour. These engines were mostly being manufactured in towns where there were lots of metalworkers and forges and iron works. And it was the owners of these manufacturing industries who’d made money selling machines to farmers, and had money to spend. So the displaced farm labourers moved to the cities, and began to work in factories of one sort or other, and live crowded together in slums. The countryside emptied, and modern industrial cities expanded.

But this Industrial Revolution increased social idleness. It now required less human work to produce the food everyone needed. The work was instead mostly being done by coal-powered steam-driven engines, on the farms, in cotton and steel mills, in mines and on railways. And with increased social idleness, there was an increased demand for pretty things like Wedgwood glazed pottery and William Morris wallpaper. And with increased social idleness there was much more of the idle time that was needed to play football and cricket, and to visit the beach at Blackpool. And this was when all these football clubs like Everton and Chelsea and Wolverhampton Wanderers all started up, and football became a religion.

Not all the idle time was welcome. Sometimes people became involuntarily idle when they didn’t want to be. This is usually called “unemployment”. Sometimes the economy would boom and there’d be lots of work for everybody, but then there’d be a bust or slump, and there wouldn’t be much work, and people would lose their jobs.

The Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century continued through the 19th and 20th century. In the 20th century it brought all sorts of new tools powered by ever-smaller and more efficient engines – like personal motor cars and aircraft and washing machines and lawnmowers and hairdriers and computers and telephones and radios and TVs. And social idleness has kept on rising. There are more and more luxuries and amusements and pretty things than there ever were. Over a few centuries, Britain has been following an S-curve growth in social idleness. It’s an S-curve because idleness has a top limit.

Over the space of a few short centuries we’ve flipped from a poor, hard-working, agrarian mediaeval world to a relatively idle, rich, industrial modern world. In that mediaeval world, life was brief and sorrowful, and the best that anyone could hope for was a better life in “the world to come”. This world was a “vale of tears”, and the sooner the pilgrim could pass through it, the better. In churches on Sundays, mediaeval man prayed for the end of this fallen world, and for the swiftest salvation.

Not so modern man. His church is the football stadium, and he wants to live forever. If life had seemed like unending toil for mediaeval man, for modern man it seems more like unending leisure. For modern man, leisure seems like the datum of human life. He expects it. And liberty too. He even feels he has a right to it.

We have forgotten that it was all quite different not very long ago. We have forgotten our own history. We have forgotten where we came from.

I really do think that modern politics is playground politics. It’s about what game we’re all going to play. Or who is going to bully whom into playing what, as everyone tries to get their own way. It’s the infantilisation and trivialisation of politics.

About Frank Davis

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6 Responses to Liberty

  1. Anonymous says:

    Avoid the truth,restrict the freedom
    A thousand words and not a mention of the fault
    FT Home > Companies > Retail & Consumer > Travel & LeisureServices
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    Not all pub operators toast sector’s revival
    By Pan Kwan Yuk
    Published: April 22 2010 22:26 | Last updated: April 22 2010 22:26
    A poster plastered outside the JD Wetherspoon in Denmark Hill, south London, gives a good idea of why fortunes are diverging in the UK pub sector.
    The poster compares the prices of 10 drinks sold inside against those offered at nearby pubs, including one that is owned by Enterprise Inns.
    While a pint of lager at this Wetherspoon’s sells for £2.35, the equivalent drink costs £3.40 at the Sun and Doves, which is tied to Scottish & Newcastle, and £3 at the Joiner’s Arms, which is tied to Enterprise Inns.
    The price difference is down to the business model – Wetherspoon manages its own pubs, while the other two use the tenanted model. While the former is thriving, the latter is experiencing long-standing problems.
    – Mar-30Frequently referred to as the Aldi of the pub world, the ability of Wetherspoon to undercut its competitors is one reason why the company has managed to weather the downturn better than many of its peers.
    Unlike Wetherspoon and M&B, which have direct control over their products and can benefit from economies of scale in purchasing, tenanted pubs are run by individuals who rent their premises from landlords such as Punch and Enterprise. These publicans are often also obliged to buy their beer supply at above market prices through these companies under a controversial “beer tie” arrangement.
    As one Enterprise tenant explains: “A local supplier can sell me a keg of 11 gallons of Carling for £86. The same from Enterprise is around £128, that’s [near] a 40 per cent difference. So I am competing with managed pubs around here that initially are buying their beers 40 per cent cheaper than I am. My end price is always going to be higher than my competitors’.”
    Prior to the credit crunch, the tenanted model was straightforward: companies borrowed money cheaply to buy pubs, installed tenants and used their rental payments to service the loans and buy more pubs. Any pubs that did not perform well were sold into a buoyant property market.
    Managed pubs, with their high operational costs, were seen as outdated.
    But the tenanted model broke down when the cheap finance was turned off and the property market came off the boil. As income from the pubs dropped, the interest payments on debt became harder to service and loan covenants harder to meet.
    In response, Enterprise and Punch have had to scrap their dividends, sell assets and, in Punch’s case, raise money through a share issue to pay down debt. But while both have bought themselves some breathing room on the debt front – Punch reduced its debt by £1bn last year to £3.3bn while Enterprise cut its by £142m to £3.7bn – problems remain, particularly on the trading front.
    “There have been two overlapping trends,” said Mark Brumby, analyst at Langton Capital. “Food-led managed houses have generally outperformed wet-led tenanted houses and south-east England has been outperforming the north.”
    The group on Thursday said that like-for-like ebitda in its leased pubs division, which accounts for four-fifths of profit, was down 11 per cent for the first half of its financial year. This drop comes on top of the 11.3 per cent decline reported during the first half of 2009.
    Along with beer discounts and rent concessions, the company on Thursday said it would offer a new lease agreement to new tenants, where they can buy beer at the market rate in exchange for a higher rent, or tied beer with a lower rent.
    But this could all be too little, too late. With Wetherspoon, M&B, Marston’s and Fuller’s all announcing ambitious expansion plans, Punch’s share of the pub pie might get smaller yet.
    Not a mention of Wetherspoons harvesting of
    customers from 6000 closed venues
    Misses Nowt

  2. Manifestos
    O/T Frank, but here’s the answer to our question on BNP policy.
    “The BNP will take legislative steps to protect Britain’s pubs, which will include tax concessions, smoking rooms under strict supervision and a lowering of tax on alcohol served in public houses.”
    From here

  3. Frank Davis says:

    Re: Manifestos
    That’s interesting! I wonder what “strict supervision” is? An armed policeman on the door?

  4. Anonymous says:

    So, to get back to your Idle Theory, Frank, am I right, then, in thinking that with the increase in technology from the Industrial Revolution onwards we should/do actually all have a lot more Idle Time than we used to, but that somehow we’ve been convinced into thinking that the work which most of us presently do is “Non-Idle Time” when actually it is no such thing?
    And if this is the case, then that begs the question why have we been so convinced? Is it a need to keep the population “busy,” so that they don’t loaf around in bed all day? Is it just a means of getting them to make rich people even richer – because, let’s be honest, if we all thought that was all we were doing then suddenly all our jobs wouldn’t seem so “essential” after all, would they? Or is it a deeply psychological need within most people in society to be doing something which they regard as “useful” in order to feel valued and worthwhile within society and to feel that they are contributing something to it?

  5. Frank Davis says:

    am I right, then, in thinking that with the increase in technology from the Industrial Revolution onwards we should/do actually all have a lot more Idle Time than we used to
    Yes. Quite exactly how much, I don’t know. As I wrote in the above essay, the Industrial Revolution continued through the 20th century, and it’s still continuing now. So social idleness has been rising for the past three centuries.
    but that somehow we’ve been convinced into thinking that the work which most of us presently do is “Non-Idle Time” when actually it is no such thing?
    Social idleness is just average idleness. And not everybody is equally idle. Some people are idler than others. The rich are idler than the poor. If social idleness had been equal, we would have found that life simply became gradually more leisured over the past few centuries. Working hours would have steadily fallen. And people would now be maybe working three-day weeks rather than five or six day weeks.
    But in fact the idleness of some people has risen much more than that of other people. Some people only have just enough money to buy the basic necessities of life. Other people have much, much more than enough. The latter are very often leading lives of almost complete idleness, with plenty of money left over to spend. They usually use this excess of money to buy luxuries. And in so doing they employ people to make these luxuries. For the people they employ, this employment is necessary work that must be done to earn money to buy basic necessities. So, purely as a result of the inequities in society, we have people necessarily employed in making luxuries.
    I’m not trying to make a moral point here, or to tut-tut about inequality or luxury. It’s just what I think is happening. It’s why we have lots of people who, of necessity, go to work every week making and selling art or music or literature. It’s how they earn a living. These luxuries of theirs don’t increase social idleness in the way that steam engines are motor cars and computers do. They are instead just fun things that can be made when there’s enough idle time available. But instead of these people freely choosing to make and sell these things, they are obliged to do so. What I’m describing here is “trickle-down economics”: rich entrepreneurs start up new businesses which increase idleness, but reap most of the benefits themselves in the form of money which they spend buying luxuries.
    Essentially, inequalities in our society result in us converting, of necessity, a lot of our idle time into making luxuries. The result is that we’re pretty much as busy as we were a few centuries before, but we’ve got lots more luxuries.
    Social idleness has been rising. But inequalities in its distribution result, of necessity, in some of this new idle time being converted into luxuries. For someone who is making chocolate cream cakes in a bakery, this is just work to earn money, just like mining or logging or building roads. It’s just necessary work to them – non-idle time, as you put it -, no different from any other work. But it remains that it’s necessary work to make unnecessary luxuries. People are not mistaken in thinking that their luxury-producing work remains just that – work.
    I think that over and above all this there are our attitudes to work. And this is a quite separate matter. A lot of people believe that work is a good thing, because it gives people something to do, and they’re rather terrified of an idle society in which people don’t get out of bed before noon. And perhaps they’re right to be terrified of it, because as a society we have little or no experience of such a life. So rather than embracing our new leisure whole-heartedly, and enjoying it, we instead set out to recreate the hard-working culture of the past. We invent jobs. We make work. The production and sale of luxuries is a very good way of making work. As long as we can maintain inequities in society, we will continue to make lots of work.
    …. cont.

  6. Frank Davis says:

    is it a deeply psychological need within most people in society to be doing something which they regard as “useful” in order to feel valued and worthwhile within society and to feel that they are contributing something to it?
    I think we have to be clear what we mean by “society”. I’ll probably try and write an essay about this. But in essence the way I see it is that in busy societies people spent most of their time working on behalf of other people – making shoes, baking bread, etc – and relatively little time doing what they themselves wanted to do. In busy societies, most people are pretty thoroughly “socialised”. And they value themselves for what they can do for other people – make shoes, bake bread, etc -. But in idle societies where most people’s time is their own time, people value their lives for all the things they do in their idle time – going out drinking and dancing, reading books, etc – and much less for what they do for other people.
    For people who have been thoroughly “socialised” into thinking about what they can do for other people, and measuring their personal worth by what they can do for them, an idle life (e.g. when they lose their jobs) seems a meaningless life. They haven’t learned to value their idle time for itself. But someone who sees great value in idle time, may well respond to unemployment by saying, “Great! Now I can do what I want for a bit, and not what somebody else demands.” I don’t know what the right word for such people is. I sometimes think of them as being “individualised”. They are people who aren’t looking for other people’s approval all the time, or measuring their worth by what other people think of them.
    But this is about attitudes to reality rather than about underlying reality itself – which I would say is one of increasing social idleness (even if a lot of this idle time gets turned into luxuries).
    It’s deeper even than that. Our neoclassical economists describe the economy as if everyone was perfectly idle, and always had been, and the only things that we produce are luxuries – or “consumer goods” as they call them. For them, the past few centuries have just seen us getting a lot better at making chocolate cakes. And that’s their way of looking at the world. I happen to think it’s deeply mistaken, but it’s how it is.
    I don’t know whether this adequately addresses your questions. There are lots of questions which I don’t have any answers to – such as a great many of the questions which come out of what I’ve just written. Like, what’s to be done about it? I’m at a loss there.

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