Thursday, December 15, 2011

What's Wrong with the Case AGAINST Shorter Working Time? I

1. The proposition accused of being false
Every day many strangers came to town, and among them one day came two swindlers. They let it be known they were weavers, and they said they could weave the most magnificent fabrics imaginable. Not only were their colors and patterns uncommonly fine, but clothes made of this cloth had a wonderful way of becoming invisible to anyone who was unfit for his office, or who was unusually stupid…
One of the more peculiar and puzzling responses to the New Economics Foundation's 21 Hours report was the charge that the authors committed a "lump-of-labour fallacy" – that their policy proposals were based on the assumption that the amount of work to be done is a fixed quantity. This complaint needs to be taken seriously, not because it has substance – it doesn't – but because of the extraordinary resilience of the fallacy myth despite its anachronism and incoherence.

The case for shorter working time is based on a cluster of core propositions, none of which are traceable to a "fixed amount of work":
  • the economy does not self-adjust to achieve "the best of all possible worlds";
  • there are physical constraints on the sustainable consumption of natural resources, including people's health (and, in the view of many environmental scientists, some of those limits are already being breached);
  • unemployment and overwork are not the "revealed preferences" or voluntary income/leisure choice of individuals; and, finally,
  • given a workforce in which many are currently unemployed or underemployed and others are overworked, policies that promote a more equitable distribution of working time can contribute to both social justice and ecological sustainability.

Part II


  1. This begs so many questions that it is difficult even to know where to start.

    Economic activity requires land, capital and labour. Capital requires credit. Labour normally gives credit - in fact it is the biggest supplier of credit in the economy. Land is enclosed and access is controlled by land owners. If the market price of land does not drop to market-clearing levels, or it exceeds the Ricardian rental value, then economic activity will not take place.

    As for the limitations of natural resources, service activities consume very little. There amount of this kind of work that needs to be done is effectively unlimited.

  2. Physiocrat,

    The "this" in your "this begs so many questions" is non-specific. If you are referring to the fallacy claim, you are correct, the fallacy claim assumes its own premise as proof of its proposition. However, if you are referring to the refutation of the fallacy claim, you haven't made it clear how "this" assumes its premise as proof of its proposition.

    Regardless, thanks for taking the trouble to comment!