In Idle Theory, all wealth is idleness. And economic growth is growth in social idleness: as the economy grows, people need to do less and less work to stay alive. And so, over time, thanks largely to technological innovations – roads, bridges, ships, planes, railways, steam engines, radios, TVs, the internet, etc – social idleness gradually increases.
But social idleness can also decrease. Natural catastrophes – storms, floods, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions – decrease idleness. So do famines, droughts, plagues, and wars. All serve to decrease idleness.
Taxation is a levy on people’s idle time. And the Idle Theory of Government is that government grows as social idleness grows. And that is essentially why we’re seeing governmental giantism these days.
It starts perhaps with the need for an army to defend a nation against enemies (who wish to invade and subjugate and enslave it). And war, like sports such as cricket or football, is an idle time activity. War does not increase idleness. In fact it always decreases it.
In war, otherwise idle people set themselves – or more usually are set by others – to work as soldiers. And in the past, the idle pastime of war was only ever conducted during the idle summer months (just like cricket or football): the campaign season. But now wars are fought in both summer and winter. They are fought all year round. And so now most nations maintain a standing army of soldiers, who need to be exercised and provisioned. In many countries, these standing armies are made up of ordinary citizens who are made to perform national service in the army for several years before returning to civilian life.
So once a nation has a standing army, its idleness is slightly decreased. And if a nation may have a standing army, it may also arrange to have a police force as well, which is another standing army, but intended to fight internal enemies, such as thieves and rapists and murderers and fraudsters. Once again, this new standing army of policemen does nothing productive. It does not increase social idleness. In fact it decreases it.
So now that we have a professional army and police force, the army will wish for there to always be sufficient numbers of enemies to justify their existence, and perhaps even to allow the army to expand, and be better armed. And the police force will wish for there to be sufficient numbers of malefactors in the world needing to be apprehended, and perhaps even for there to be a surplus of such malefactors to justify the expansion of the police force.
And if there is an army and a police force, there will also arise a need for prisons in which to detain malefactors. And so next we get a prison service, and another standing army of prison guards, and a prison building programme.
And in addition to these there needs to be a legislature which makes the laws which determine who is and who is not a malefactor who needs to be sent to prison. And this legislature is another standing army of bureaucrats, who formulate and enact laws, with prison sentences or fines attached to failure to comply with these laws. And the larger this legislature or civil service becomes, the more laws it makes, and the more laws it makes the more law-breaking malefactors it creates. So if the legislature starts by attaching prison sentences to theft and murder and rape, it will then go on to make prostitution and drug and alcohol and tobacco consumption illegal or restricted. It may also make speeding in motor vehicles illegal, and parking on double yellow lines illegal.
In these various different ways, the various standing armies in government slowly expand, making larger and larger levies or taxes upon the idle time of its citizens. And so while the idleness of society is gradually being increased as new technologies come into use, social idleness is also being decreased as government taxes people more and more. In fact, as government grows, it is quite likely to impoverish a nation.
So if I revise my cartoon to include the growth of government, using a yellow icon featuring a suited bureaucrat (or mobster) to represent the idle time demands by GOVernment (right), the evolution of society over time may look more like this:
Initially, when life is mostly very busy (8% idle), there is no government. And then, as social idleness rises to 33%, government appears – in the form of a standing army of some sort -, the burden of this government serves to reduce social idleness from 33% to 25%. And when social idleness has risen to 67%, and the government has tripled in size, the burden of this government reduces social idleness to 42%. And then when social idleness has risen to 91%, and government has tripled again in size, the burden of government reduces social idleness to 17% – and the people are becoming impoverished.
And this seems to be the state of affairs in much of the Western world, and elsewhere as well. Governments just keep getting bigger and bigger, and more and more intrusive. There are larger and larger standing armies of soldiers, policemen, prison guards, parking wardens, civil servants, and legislators (to name but a few of them). In the case of the EU, an entire new layer of legislators has been added on top of the existing layer of national legislatures that preceded it.
And the process is entirely natural. But it is one that is driven by fear of largely imaginary threats. In the case of the standing armies of soldiers, at present is it really necessary for the British to be ready to defend themselves against imminent invasion by the French or Germans or Spanish? Is it really necessary to have laws against the imaginary crime of drug use, and an attendant army of policemen and prison guards? Is it really necessary to have speeding fines and parking fines? Is it really necessary to enact laws to prevent the largely imaginary threat of global warming? Is it really necessary to enact laws against the wholly imaginary threat of environmental tobacco smoke? Government grows by identifying and exaggerating mostly non-existent threats. For each new threat identified is then converted into an other stream of taxes, and another overburden of restrictive legislation.
At some point, as social idleness approaches zero, and nobody has any free time at all, society reaches breaking point. For in Idle Theory, zero idleness is the threshold of death. And societies can also die. And their death is likely accompanied by mounting failures and shortages. At this point, governments usually fall. And they will be replaced by slimmer and fitter governments. Or perhaps by no governments at all.