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January 16, 2005

In Praise of Idleness

He's right, you know:

One of the commonest things to do with savings is to lend them to some Government. In view of the fact that the bulk of the public expenditure of most civilized Governments consists in payment for past wars or preparation for future wars, the man who lends his money to a Government is in the same position as the bad men in Shakespeare who hire murderers. The net result of the man's economical habits is to increase the armed forces of the State to which he lends his savings. Obviously it would be better if he spent the money, even if he spent it in drink or gambling.

Read the rest of In Praise of Idleness by Bertrand Russell.


I assume you were being sarcastic, but just in case not, Russell is being silly. A larger economy and/or more sophisticated technology includes larger military expenditures and/or more destructive military technology. That doesn't mean that new technology and investment are, on the whole, bad things. People stopping saving may result in declining military expenditures -- but it might also result in a collapse of investment, bankrupting interest rates for those who still try to borrow, and many other problems.

Sarcasm aside, I think Russell's comments shed some light on the "ideology of consumerism" discussed by radical sociologists (anbd others). To wit, What is the precise social utility of silly putty, whoopee cushions, cable TV, cable TV news, prefab, mass-marketed recreational consumerism and its zombie-contents, etc?

The November issue of Harper's has an essay called "Quitting the Paint Factory: On the Virtues of Idleness" by Mark Slouka that talks about a different factor of the drive to work.

That Mark Slouka article is available online, here.

Interesting questions: could we have somehow created a society that gave us protease inhibitors, public sanitation, and year-round access to fresh fruit without creating silly putty or whoopie cushions, all the while maintaining people's freedom to basically do what they want?

Silly putty as an attendant to freedom on the march? A symbol of the triumph of modern democratic society?

That was never my claim. My claim was not that silly putty is a necessary prerequisite of freedom. My claim was that, combined with the wealth that allows so many good things, silly putty may be a consequence of freedom. Similarly, neo-Nazis marching in the street is not a prerequisite for freedom of speech, but in certain circumstances, it is a consequence of freedom of speech.

Though really, silly putty may be of little worth, but war is of negative worth. I would say that technological and economic progress is still worth it, even if it is sometimes worthless and sometimes harmful

Do you think Russell argues here against progress?

Or more specifically the mode of social order that supports it?
And if the latter is the case, do you think the existing social order is improvable?
And if your answer to the last question was yes or maybe, do you think we can have a world where freedom can exist w/o silly putty or, more directly, with more significant opportunities for education in science, math, and even- gasp!- philosophy?

d mason... yes, but not through idleness.

Were I not a Wittgensteinian, and thus disinclined to seek philosophical justification or foundations for my preferred activities, I would be happy to see that Bertie had so thoughtfully provided them.

I note with some puzzlement, however, that his enumeration of dissipative activities makes no reference to the one in which he acquired some reputation – that of skirt-chasing. Perhaps by this time he had realized that, just as Ludwig had earlier destroyed his ability ever to do fundamental work in philosophy again, his endeavors in this area had been forever eclipsed by the formidable Sir Freddy Ayer.

I realize this is an old post, but its bugging me. Russell was not arguing against progress. If you had read the essay, you would have seen that Russell was arguing that it is leisure, leisure to do science, to write poems, to paint, to make music, to read books, to dance without having to worry about starvation that will lead to progress, not working your life away in factories or cubicles. He was not that daft to think that people didn't need to work all, but he wished an average work day that provided the necessities of survival could be had with 4 hours of work per day.

I know that Russell was being ironic in that passage. He was a huge exponent of progress. Crucially, he believed that disarmament was one of the most important kinds of progress that society could make--it would not only reduce the chances of destroying the world, it would give people more free time to cultivate their potentials because they wouldn't be working to help pay for arms races.

The point here is that not all production is useful, even if it is profitable. There are two ways to acquire wealth--one is to create it, and the other is to grab it. Capitalism rewards each equally--or rather, rewards them in proportion to how economically they may be accomplished. Thus, there is a great deal of waste.

Of course, it is not actually necessary to end capitalism to reduce the hours of the workday. Before anarcho-terrorists rioted in the streets, the workday in the US was 12 hours. The government decided that concessions would be necessary to prevent a workers insurrection, so the 8 hour workday was granted. Capitalism was not abolished, nor did progress (so-called) halt.

Unfortunately, people today have leisure enough to prevent insurrection, yet hardly enough to provide opportunity for a full life.

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