In Praise of Leisure and the Pitfalls of Unions
Mark Linsenmayer outlines Bertrand Russell’s case in “In Praise of Idleness” for a shorter work week. Writing in the early 20th century, Russell spent most of his essay confronting the moralistic arguments against leisure. After all, idle hands are the devil’s tools and so on.
In the early 21st century though, the bigger issue concerning work and leisure is simply a dearth of jobs. Unemployment is still above its “natural” level in the U.S., as well as many other ostensibly rich European countries (Austria and Germany are notable exceptions).
And even as unemployment in the U.S. continues its all-to-slow decline, wages continue to stagnate and many of the full-time jobs that vanished in the 2008 recession are only coming back in the form of part-time ones. Despite the fact that labor continues to stall however, businesses overall are doing quite well. Record profits for some, strong trading on Wall Street, and steady increases to productivity even while its cost remains constant mean that those on the supply-side of the affair are doing markedly better than their counterparts.
Linsenmayer sees the dilemma as a systematic one. Either something about the market or the welfare state will fundamentally need to shift in order to ameliorate the growing disconnect between the jobless, working, and middle classes, and everyone else.
But this still fails to meet the political challenge that our broken economic system poses whereby our current job situation maims the majority of people (not just the working poor or jobless) and is unsustainable over the long term. Yes, you do what you can, but don’t fool yourself that simply making different consumer choices is going to reform much of anything.
On this question, I find little comfort in pro-labor solutions because they don’t solve the more fundamental issues I see with market capitalism. Whereas libertarians in favor of minimum incomes, and neoliberals who support hyper-reditribution through the tax code, see a path forward that does something to liberate individuals from the constraints of market arrangements, most union approaches are less progressive by comparison. Instead of pushing back against the labor-capital relationship they simply seek to re-balance it. The problem is one of wages and checks and balances in the workplace, rather than the workplace itself.
This isn’t to say that I’m anti-union. And certainly if I worked in a setting where unionization made sense, I would embrace it as my first line of defense against economic exploitation. But while the union withers as a tool for amassing and exercising class political power, I think it’s important to guard against being hitched to any particular union’s narrow self-interests. What’s a few dollars increase in the minimum wage when compared with free minimum health care, daycare vouchers, or a more robust food stamp program? And besides, what good’s a union when you’re unemployed?
The question that arises then though is what replaces the political potency of unions in a post-union environment? In many ways, the Internet gives the power to organize to everyone, not just those who are part of market-based organizations (corporations, merchant groups, unions). But will that be enough to ever alter the campaign finance laws, and litany of other election regulations, which favor incumbents, elites, and the rich, no matter which side of the aisle they’re on?