Voltaire once said that “work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” Many people endorse this sentiment. Indeed, the ability to seek and secure paid employment is often viewed as an essential part of a well-lived life. Those who do not work are reminded of the fact. They are said to be missing out on a valuable and fulfilling human experience. The sentiment is so pervasive that some of the foundational documents of international human rights law — including the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR Art. 23) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR Art. 6) — recognise and enshrine the “right to work”.
But what about the right not to work? Although the UDHR and ICESCR both recognise the right to rest and leisure, they do so clearly in the context of a concern about overwork. In other words, they recognise the right to work under fair and reasonable conditions. They do not take the more radical step of recognising a right to opt out of work completely, nor to have that right protected by the state. But maybe they should? Maybe the right not to work is something that a just and humane society should recognise?
That, at any rate, is the argument developed by Andrew Levine in his article “Fairness to Idleness: Is there a right not to work?”. In this post, I want to take a look at that argument. In broad outline, Levine defends the claim that a right not to work is entailed by the fundamental principles of liberal egalitarianism (of a roughly Rawlsian type). He does so, not because he himself endorses liberal egalitarianism, but because he wishes to highlight the more radical implications of that view.
I think Levine’s argument is intriguing. I also think that if we are entering an age of increasing automation and technological unemployment — i.e. a world in which economically productive activity will be taken over by machines — its alleged impracticalities will become less and less of an issue. Consequently, it is something we should start to take more seriously. I’ll break my discussion down into two main sections. First, I’ll sketch Levine’s argument for the right not to work. Second, I’ll consider his response to the major criticisms of that argument.
1. Levine’s Argument for a Right not to Work
One of the central precepts of liberal egalitarianism (as Levine understands it) is the principle of neutrality. According to this principle, the state should be neutral with respect to its citizens’ conception of the good. That is to say, the state should not promote any particular conception of what the good life consists in. Instead, it should work to tolerate and facilitate people in their pursuit of different conceptions of the good. Obviously, it can only do this to a certain extent. If a person’s conception of the good consists in the belief that, say, all black people should be killed, then that can neither be facilitated nor tolerated. Or if a person’s conception of the good involves unreasonable demands on resources, such that it would deprive many others of their conception of the good, then it may not be permissible or possible to facilitate it. But assuming that a person’s conception of the good does not unjustly or unfairly deprive anyone else of their conception of the good, it should be tolerated, and if possible, facilitated.
This principle of neutrality provides the basis for Levine’s argument for the right not to work. Although he does not offer a formal summary of that argument, I think we can craft a formal version by reading between the lines. Here is my stab at it:
- (1) If the state is committed to the liberal egalitarian model of justice, then it should tolerate and facilitate any individual citizen’s conception of the good, provided that that conception of the good does not unjustly or unfairly deprive anyone else of their conception of the good.
- (2) There is a conception of the good in which a person refuses to work and instead pursues a life of leisure.
- (3) This conception of the good does not unjustly and unfairly deprive anyone else of their conception of the good.
- (4) Therefore, the liberal egalitarian state should tolerate and facilitate the refusal of work and the pursuit of leisure (i.e. it should recognise a right not to work).
Let’s talk about the premises of this argument. Premise (1) is the normative principle. As you can see, it is conditional in nature. It assumes that we first accept the liberal egalitarian model. This is a model many would challenge, but we are assuming it arguendo (for the sake of argument). This is because that is the argumentative strategy adopted by Levine. Some may also dispute the claim that liberal egalitarianism entails the restricted form of neutrality that I have outlined in the second half of premise (1). Indeed, as we shall see, Levine himself disputes it, thinking in particular that the “unfairness” condition may be overstated. This means we may have to modify premise (1), but we’ll only do that once we confront the relevant objection to the argument.
Premise (2) makes what I think is a relatively uncontroversial point, namely that a life of leisure is a possible model of the good life. Since most people accept that leisure is a good, I think they might be willing to accept this claim. Admittedly, a lot more would need to be said to fully defend it. In particular, the concept of “leisure” would need to be unpacked in more detail. The only thing I would say here is that, for me, the concept of a “life of leisure” is not used to denote a life of senseless pleasure-seeking. Rather, it is used to denote a life that is not economically productive or consumptive. Thus, a life of leisure could consist in producing things with no economic value (like blog posts!). Furthermore, I would add that premise (2) is consistent with the view that a life of leisure is “less than ideal” or “sub-optimal”. In other words, it only claims that it is a conception of the good; not that it is the best one.
Premise (3) is probably the most important one. It makes the key claim that the pursuit of a life of leisure does not unjustly or unfairly interfere with anyone else’s conception of the good. It is this claim that allows us to reach the conclusion that there could be a right not to work. Without it, the argument crumbles. There are several obvious rejoinders to premise (3). We’ll talk about the most obvious one — the reciprocity objection — below. In the meantime, we’ll consider another possible rejoinder.
Some people might be inclined to view leisure as an expensive taste, one that the state is under no obligation to facilitate. To give an example: sailing around the world on a fully-staffed, multi-million dollar yacht, may well feature in some people’s conception of the good life (I believe I have met such people). But I doubt anyone would say that the state is obliged to facilitate that conception of the good life. If that’s the way you want to live, you’ll have to work and earn the money needed to fund that expensive taste. That’s usually the way we look on all expensive tastes. But isn’t leisure time the same thing? Isn’t it just expensive taste that we need to work hard to earn?
Levine argues that this is the wrong way to look at the life of leisure. He argues that looking on leisure as a consumption-good — i.e. that can bought and paid for, and substituted for other goods — misses the point in at least two ways. First, it adopts a perspective on leisure that is a function of our capitalistic, commodification-prone society. Second, it ignores the fact that working hard in order to obtain leisure undermines the very nature of that good.
Instead, Levine argues that we should view leisure as an intrinsic, non-substitutable good: something that can’t simply be purchased in return for a fee. To defend this claim, Levine adopts a rather ingenious strategy: he draws an analogy between the typical arguments for the right to work and the argument he wants to make for the right to leisure. I’ll quote from him here:
To make the case that the state ought to accord [a right to work]… one would have to show that, for some individuals, the benefits of employment are such that nothing can adequately substitute for them. Presumably the benefits would be non-pecuniary, since direct grants can always substitute for wages…thus it is almost certainly relevant to any likely defense of a right to work that individuals generally cannot purchase jobs through markets…it is also relevant that social norms are such that participation in the monetized economy is, for most people, a basis for self-respect and the respect of others.
In much the same way, it is fair to view leisure as an intrinsic, non-substitutable component of particular conceptions of the good. The rationale is the same: like employment in the monetized economy, idleness can sometimes be so connected to individuals’ self-understandings, to their relations with others, and indeed to their very identities that trading off leisure for a wage can only be to the detriment of what matters fundamentally [to them].
As I say, I think this is ingenious. This is mainly because I think Levine is correct about the right to work. If people believe that work is so important that it must be facilitated and protected by the state, it must be because they think the goods associated with it cannot simply be bought and sold on a market. But if this is correct then why not look on leisure as being the same thing (for at least some people)?
The problem, of course, is that many will think that facilitating leisure will be unfair and unjust in other ways. Let’s consider this type of objection in more depth.
2. Reciprocity and the Unfairness of Non-workers
The view that non-workers are no-good free-loaders, whose lifestyles are funded off the hard-graft of others, is a persistent one. There is good cause for it. The idle leisure-seeking classes of the past and present are typically wealthy landowners or capitalists who fund their extravagant lifestyles from rents they earn from the productive work of others. Surely we cannot be wish to protect and facilitate their right to do this?
Embedded in this rhetorical question are two related objections to the right to not to work. The first, and more straightforward, is the objection that the state couldn’t really sustain this sort of lifestyle choice. If everybody pursued the life of leisure, there would be nobody left to fund it. The second, and more ethically complex objection, is that even if some people did get to pursue this lifestyle, they could only do so by unjustly or unfairly exploiting others.
As I say, the first objection is the more straightforward one. We can respond to it in a couple of ways. One is by acknowledging that if everyone chose that lifestyle it would, indeed, be unsustainable, but then suggesting that this is unlikely. This is Levine’s response. He thinks the work ethic is so dominant in our societies that it is highly unlikely that a sufficient number of people will drop out of work. Another response, which I hinted at in the introduction, is to suggest that automation and technological unemployment will either (a) allow for many more people to drop out of work or (b) force many people out of work. Consequently, a life of leisure will become feasible (if not compulsory) for more and more people. Of course, technological unemployment on a large scale could create huge inequalities of wealth, and these would need to be addressed, but that wouldn’t defeat the point I making: that technological unemployment will bring us closer to a world in which a life of leisure is increasingly the norm.
The second objection is the more ethically contentious one. It derives its logic from classic “public goods” problems like the tragedy of the commons. Societies have a number of coordination problems to solve. Oftentimes, the solution requires some form of cooperation: if everyone (or a sufficient fraction thereof) pitches in, a cooperative gain will be realised. If they do not, the cooperative gain will be lost. The belief is that the gains from economic growth are much like this. Unless a sufficient number of people pitch in (either by supplying capital or labour), those cooperative gains will be lost. Furthermore, the belief is that the shares of those cooperative gains should, in a just and fair society, be proportionate in nature. That is to say, your share of the cooperative gain should be proportionate to the amount of effort you put into realising it. If your share is greater than your contribution, you are unjustly and unfairly profiting from the contribution of others.
The objection to non-work is simply that if society tolerated and facilitated this lifestyle, it would presumably have to be through some form of redistribution that allowed the leisure-seekers to meet their basic needs without working. That would mean they would receive a share of economic gains that was not proportionate to their contribution. Hence it would mean that they were unjustly and unfairly depriving others of what they were due.
Interestingly, Levine accepts this criticism (this is where the modification of premise (1) comes into play). He accepts that the life of leisure would involve some degree of unfair gain (though how great is a separate issue). He just doesn’t think this is a normative problem. Why not? Because cooperative gains are rarely, if ever, shared in accordance to contribution. It is usually very difficult to work out what the contributions really are, and oftentimes impractical or undesirable to distribute in accordance with those contributions. For example, the state provides (or heavily regulates the provision of) public goods that cannot be easily supplied by the market. A classic example is healthcare. When it does so, the benefits of that good are rarely equally shared among the population. But we usually do not fret greatly about this. For example, I contribute far more to the public healthcare in my country than I take out of it, but I don’t find this to be terribly unfair to me. Other people need those resources more than I do.
Is there something different about work and non-work? Should a lack of contribution to economic productivity be treated differently? Levine argues that, in principle, it shouldn’t, but there is a good historical reason as to why it is perceived differently. Material scarcity was, and still is, a fact of life for many human societies. For example, hunter-gatherer tribes living off the land, couldn’t afford to tolerate group members who didn’t do their fair share (certainly not for long). Otherwise, they would all starve. This probably encouraged our ancestors to resent the idle. Levine suggests that this resentment may now be deeply engrained in our psyches. It could be what makes the life of leisure seem so self-indulgent and unfair.
But the historical rationale for this resentment may no longer be present. We now live in pretty affluent societies, which often overproduce essential goods like food and housing. There are still material scarcities, of course, but they are largely due to failures to distribute the abundant gains in an equitable maner. This increasing affluence — particularly if it can be achieved through machine rather than human labour — reduces the need for everyone to do their “fair share”. As Levine puts it:
… it is no longer a reasonable functional adaptation to real world conditions to demand that everyone do their “fair share” in the face of scarcity. Increasing affluence diminishes, without extinguishing, the moral urgency of reciprocity. At the same time, it enhances the importance of doing what it required to implement genuine neutrality.
In other words, as we become better and better at meeting our material needs without human labour, it becomes more and more important to ensure that our society meets the other requirements of justice, which in this case means recognising, respecting and facilitating the right not to work.
That brings us to the end of Levine’s argument. To briefly recap, Levine argues that the principle of liberal neutrality implies a right not to work. This is because leisure is an intrinsic, non-substitutable good, that can feature in a person’s conception of the good life. If the neutral state ought to tolerate and facilitate its citizens’ pursuit of the good, then it ought to tolerate and facilitate the rejection of work.
Levine defends this argument from charges of impracticality and injustice. He does so primarily on the grounds that increasing affluence and abundance negates the need for everyone to do their “fair share”. I have suggested that this argument can be strengthened by considering the possible impact of automation and technological unemployment.