Plenitude, Alienation, and Leisure

— I just ran across this great little essay by Don Boudreaux on his Mason homepage. I remember when I first grasped Don's lesson. It was some time in my sophomore year of college. The lesson? That I am unfathomably wealthy, due to no special effort on my part, just in virtue of the economic system I am embedded in. Once this really sinks in–once one really grasps the truth of it–your intuitions about the world are forever rewired.
Recently, the fact of our astonishing wealth has led me to the belief that Americans border on the pathological in our work habits. No doubt many people really find deep satisfaction in their jobs, so they work… a lot. But many if not most people really despise their jobs. So why in a society of plenitude do people insist on working so much? If offered the choice between a 40 hour/week job paying $60,000, and a 20 hour/week job paying $30,000, I would without hesitation choose the latter. I'd much prefer to have an extra thousand hours per year in which to read, write, think, create, or whatever, than an extra 30 grand. Because Don's right, I can live like a king on 30 grand. And the difference in quality of life between 30 and 60 grand is ALMOST NOTHING. I'm even pretty sure I could do fairly princely on 20G, in most of the country.
Now, my preferences are my preferences. But I really do wonder why more people don't share them. My thinking has led me to two main hypotheses, both of fairly leftist provenance.
First is that marketing and advertising induces “false” desires. I think this is fairly plausible. When I say that people can have false desires, I don't mean that people don't REALLY desire a plasma TV, or that they don't actually find satisfaction in having one. I mean a desire the satisfaction of which really doesn't connect in any serious way with one's structure of ends. The time and money could have been better spent actually realizing more fundamental ends–the ones that confer deeper and more satisfying meaning and value on one's life. The $2000 TV gets you almost nothing over and above the $99 version. This is not a complaint against Madison Ave or the Sony corporation. They do what they do, and we mostly benefit from it. But in some ways we don't. It's up to us, though.
Second is that people have unreasonable relative preferences. We don't want our social peers to be or appear “better off” than we are. So if Ralph has a plasma TV, then I need one too. I constantly feel the pull of this. I have a pretty strong desire to buy stylish and expensive clothes in order to send social signals about my taste and means. I would like a nicer, newer car, even though the gross functional difference between Bucephalus, my 1996 Civic, and an Audi TT is almost totally negligible (even though the difference in price is close to a year's wages.) But when I think about it, I can't imagine how cutting a dashing figure in bespoke threads, or creeping down U St in a trick ride would get me any closer to any of the goals I really care about. I would also very much like to be famous. But the benefits of fame are questionable. For some probably evolutionary reason I have a strong urge to send signals of my relative affluence and prestige. But it doesn't get me anywhere, other than satisfying my urge to send signals of my relative affluence and prestige. So shouldn't we resist?
Now, as much as I would like everyone to be happy, I really don't want everyone to immunize themselves against false desire and relative preferences, readjust their baseline of satisfaction, and start working part-time. It's really great to free ride off the crazed industry of others. And it's only going to get better. I like to read blogs. I get a lot out of it. But I sure don't pay a cent for it (other than for the computer and internet connection). And people have been driving themselves nuts trying to figure out how to get paid for it, how to internalize all that value they're just giving away. But I think technology's going to keep making it harder. As things get cheaper and cheaper, the cost of devising mechanisms for charging for everything just won't be worth it. So more and more value just keeps spilling out, free for the taking. And we happy few with a preference for leisure will just mop up. So please, do keep up the fifty hour weeks. I'm counting on you.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center