In Idle Theory, people are regarded as alternating between being idle (green) and busy working at essential tasks (red), and their “idleness” is the fraction of their time that they are idle.
In Idle Theory, economic growth is growth in social idleness (everybody’s idleness). And rising social idleness means that people need to do less work to stay alive. And social idleness is increased primarily through the development of useful tools whose value in idle time gained is greater than their cost in the idle time expended in making them.
Economic growth of this sort cannot be sustained indefinitely, because there is a maximum of idleness at 1 (100% idle). Starting from low idleness, economic growth is likely to initially be very slow over many millennia, and to grow exponentially. The slow economic growth at low idleness is because people have very little idle time in which to innovate, and develop new tools and technologies. The more idle time they have, the faster innovation proceeds, and the faster idleness grows. After the growth rate peaks, people have lots of time for innovation, but it gets harder and harder to increase idleness. Eventually growth stops, with idleness approaching (but never reaching) 1. So, with idleness plotted against time, the long term growth curve will (ideally) look something like this:
The period of low idleness lasts for thousands of years. And the period of maximum growth may be packed into a single century. So the great bulk of human history has been one of unremitting toil, with the gradual appearance of new technologies. After the very long Stone Age, there’s a Bronze Age, and an Iron Age. And in general over the past few thousand years there’s a gradual steady improvement in the quality of technology.
In the past few centuries of the “Industrial Revolution” economic growth has become headlong. And right now we may be somewhere near peak growth rate. Over my lifetime I’ve seen an entire new technology – computing – emerge and develop. Back in 1950, a computer was as big as a house. But now the same computing power is packed into a single near-invisible chip.
The first computers were too expensive for individual private ownership, and were held in shared ownership/use in universities, with hundreds of people being allotted time on them. But by 1975 the first personal computers had begun to appear. I bought my first personal computer – an Exidy Sorcerer – in 1979 (and started using it to develop Idle Theory’s economics). Now I’ve got about 5 or 6 personal computers, and dozens of devices (mobile phone, dashcam, voice recorder, calculator) which contain microprocessors, and I earned my living programming devices of this sort. At the present rate of growth, computing power will become free, and there’ll be smart toothbrushes and smart beermats. And this may be how ownership patterns develop: first scarce and shared, then more abundant and individually owned, and finally ubiquitous and free .
One inevitable consequence of rising social idleness is unemployment. Ideally, the dwindling burden of necessary work is shared equally. In practice, some people work, and others are completely idle. Unemployment is insupportable in low idleness societies, where it takes 100 working men to support one idle man. But at high levels of idleness, where one working man can support 100 idle men, high levels of unemployment are perfectly sustainable. Which may explain why unemployment no longer seems to be the bogey it once was.
Another consequence of rising social idleness is the appearance of luxuries and amusements, which don’t generate idle time, but instead consume it. For once people have a lot of idle time on their hands, they generally want to dispose of it by playing games, or watching movies, or listening to music. So as social idleness rises, more and more games appear. If chess is an ancient game, football and cricket and pool are newer ones, and a great many computers are now entirely dedicated to video games. I’m currently playing quite a lot of online snooker and golf.
If there’s an ancient puritanical aversion to these ‘addictive’, time-consuming pastimes, it’s probably because there’s a dread that if people spend all their time playing games which consume their idle time, they won’t do the necessary work to first make the idle time in which to play such games. Hence the drug war, smoking bans, alcohol prohibition, and all the rest. Proverbs 24:33:
A little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the hands to rest—
and poverty will come on you like a thief
and scarcity like an armed man.
But while such moral strictures make a great deal of sense in low idleness societies, where a little sleep by a shepherd might indeed prove catastrophic for his untended flock, they make less and less moral sense in highly idle societies. For there’s nothing wrong with people disposing of their idle time playing chess or football, or watching movies. The moral danger lies in them watching movies while they’re supposed to be at work making idleness-generating tools.
As social idleness increases, and more and more people have increasingly large amounts of free time to dispose of, there naturally appears a demand for cafes and bars in which to relax, and casinos, football stadiums, cinemas, theatres, museums, art galleries, and tourist resorts, all of which cater for idle people with time on their hands.
It might even be suggested that what is idleness-increasing (and morally correct) in low idleness societies becomes idleness-restricting (and morally incorrect) in high idleness societies. Idle time is time in which people can do as they want, rather than as they must. And to restrict the range of possible idle time activities with smoking bans, alcohol prohibitions, drug laws, gaming restrictions, is to restrict the number of idle time activities, and thereby annul the freedom that comes with idleness. What is the value of idle time, if one cannot dispose of it as one sees fit?
Our modern antismoking zealots may, in a world where necessary work is vanishing, also be trying to invent (or re-invent) jobs for themselves. A medical profession that was becoming redundant, as traditional epidemic diseases like malaria and typhoid were prevented or cured, has now re-invented obesity and smoking as entirely new diseases. In this manner they have succeeded in keeping themselves in employment, fighting phantom diseases as if they were real ones. And other alarmists have invented the phantom enemy of global warming to justify their continued employment. Both claim to be performing essential tasks, but both expend huge amounts of work in achieving negligible gains in idleness (in the form of “health or safety”). And as such they are a burden on society rather than a benefit, and act to reduce social idleness rather than increase it.
It may even be that, with the multiplication of unnecessary or useless or destructive forms of employment, social idleness actually declines in a period of decay that begins when idleness can no longer be increased.
There might even be repeat cycles of growth and decay.