In Praise of Leisure & The Unexpected Temptations of Superabundance

What is the real purpose for making money? How is it that our abundance of money has left us less able to answer that question? How is it that we have misplaced any sense of leisure (which is really just doing culture for its own sake rather than for profit)?

This is a thought provoking article from the Chronicle of Higher Education that seeks to answer these questions.

The authors provide some food for thought, but wrongly place the blame for human greed at the feet of capitalism. I have no desire to defend the evils of our current economy, which seems more like a kind of Frankenstein- with parts of different bodies stitched together in their decay-than anything pure. But I do find it short sighted to miss the fact that all  human history, and every economic system is full of greed and discontent. What human history is NOT full of is abundance. And in part it is capitalism that has helped us arrive at this situation where we are no longer fighting to survive with bare necessities. But it is a two edged sword and we are not doing a very good job at surviving the temptations of superabundance.

“Imagine a world in which most people worked only 15 hours a week. They would be paid as much as, or even more than, they now are, because the fruits of their labor would be distributed more evenly across society. Leisure would occupy far more of their waking hours than work. It was exactly this prospect that John Maynard Keynes conjured up in a little essay published in 1930 called “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Its thesis was simple. As technological progress made possible an increase in the output of goods per hour worked, people would have to work less and less to satisfy their needs, until in the end they would have to work hardly at all. Then, Keynes wrote, “for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.” He thought this condition might be reached in about 100 years—that is, by 2030….

“He asked something hardly discussed today: What is wealth for? How much money do we need to lead a good life? This might seem an impossible question. But it is not a trivial one. Making money cannot be an end in itself—at least for anyone not suffering from acute mental disorder. To say that my purpose in life is to make more and more money is like saying that my aim in eating is to get fatter and fatter. And what is true of individuals is also true of societies. Making money cannot be the permanent business of humanity, for the simple reason that there is nothing to do with money except spend it. And we cannot just go on spending. There will come a point when we will be satiated or disgusted or both. Or will we?”

Here is another meaty phrase:

“If the ultimate end of industry is idleness, if we labor and create merely so that our descendants can snuggle down to an eternity of daytime television, then all progress is, as Orwell put it, “a frantic struggle towards an objective which [we] hope and pray will never be reached.” We are in the paradoxical situation of goading ourselves to ever new feats of enterprise, not because we think them worthwhile, but because any activity, however pointless, is better than none. We must believe in the possibility of genuine leisure—otherwise our state is desperate indeed.”


Source: In Praise of Leisure – The Chronicle of Higher Education

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