A Lazy Worker is a Productive Worker

Could this be the seminal economic text of our time? 

In 1880, Paul Lafargue wrote a 40-page pamphlet that defended the “right to be lazy.” If his name doesn’t ring any bells, he was the Cuban-born son-in-law of Karl Marx. Lafargue’s slogan was later picked up by members of the Industrial Workers of the World (“Wobblies”), especially in Australia. Aussie Wobs reprinted Lafargue’s pamphlet in 1917, and the right to be lazy soon became an IWW catch phrase. As the Wobblies saw it, humans were not born to toil. The ultimate goal of labor is to produce more free time; in fact, a life devoted to work was simply slavery under a different guise.

It turns out that Lafargue and the Wobblies were on to something. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education article, Edward and Robert Skidelsky reveal that obsession with hard work played a big role in precipitating the current financial crisis. They’ve looked at the emphasis capitalist economists from Adam Smith (conservative) through John Maynard Keynes (liberal) placed on leisure, and argue that theories of economic growth without a corresponding focus on leisure trap economic systems into endless cycles of boom and bust. They also found a historical correlation between healthy economies and leisurely workers–GDP rises hand-in-hand with increased leisure time. This is because mere growth divorced from purpose is inherently alienating–we don’t know why we’re working. Ultimately, labor separated from leisure becomes irrational. We might work harder, accumulate more material objects, and (in theory) create greater social and cultural opportunities, but we don’t have the time or the ethos that allows us to enjoy them. Without time off or a leisure mentality, we drive ourselves in the purposeless task of seeking wealth, a pursuit that leads us to attempt to increase output long after it is useful or possible to do so. In other words, we work until we break the system! The Skidelskys’ remedy for boom-and-bust cycles isn’t likely to taught at the Wharton School of Business in the near future, but maybe it should be: demand less of workers and channel them into more leisure opportunities. When workers know why they work–to gain access to leisure and the fruits of their labor–they become more productive and efficient on the job.

So there you have it–listen to the Wobblies instead of the capitalists. You’ve got a right to be lazy and asserting that right will make you happier and more productive when you do work. The next time the economy starts to falter, prop your feet up and take a snooze. When you wake up, head for the beach. You’ve got better data on your side than the venture capitalists, so do your bit for the Dow Jones by basking in the sun.

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