Friday, April 15, 2011

The Politics of Leisure

It is curious the following pair of articles came across my desk in the same week, Terry Eagleton's encomium for Marx in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Wendy McElroy's reflection on values and economics at Mises Daily. I would certainly wager the authors are not in communication. While Eagleton's essay, a condensed version of his book sans the scholarship, I would assume, embraces more issues, both articles add an uncommon spin to the topic of economics: culture. Now your humble bloggers have discussed leisure and culture as well as economics but I thought this was a novel take. This pair of articles in particular yields a fruitful comparison.

In Praise of Marx, by Terry Eagleton
The Case for Frugality, by Wendy McElroy

First and foremost they both examine the concept of leisure in the light of economics, albeit from opposing economic camps. Both authors embrace the idea that leisure time is of value and both realize that some excess production is necessary to achieve excess time.  Both authors even admit the excess production can be spent on anything at the discretion of the individual: perhaps what pleases you is expensive and you must work more to afford it or perhaps you work less because you would rather have leisure time or what goods please you are inexpensive.

Yet Eagleton's position demands, since inequality is unacceptable, that the excess production be split to achieve equal leisure. While both embrace the value of leisure Eagleton in essence declares it a right. There being no legitimate and acceptable reasons for inequality, either of resources or ability, and because this condition of leisure does not naturally exist since people have to support themselves via work to create food, shelter, and so forth, some people have to provide it for others. He also seizes the moral authority to act and balance the inequality, adding, "We would no longer tolerate a situation in which the minority had leisure because the majority had labor."

Thus it becomes the case that an individual is not free to value and trade his labor, i.e. his finite time and life, since he must support others, others who define what the "minimum standard" of "leisure" is and distribute the resources to achieve it. He may have to work more than he wants to (and achieve less leisure, either of time or goods) because someone else cannot.

Eagleton clearly wants to present the spiritual, "enlightened," side of Marxism, i.e. Marxism as un-economic and essentially unconcerned with material goods. Yet lack of such considerations merely neglects the economic and moral effects of planned economies, it does not eliminate them. He says that people would be free how to spend their leisure without acknowledging the processes used to determine how much leisure he is allowed to keep in the first place (as well as the moral implications and economic ramifications.) His romantic view ignores the fundamental fact that central planning destroys the ability of an individual to ascertain the cost and result of a given activity. That individuals are free to act and act unpredictably further confounds any attempt at centralization. The gross and repeated failures of planned economies to react to change are usually glossed over as failures of implementation rather than of essence. Too critics often attempt to distinguish between planned economies and taxation, the latter being acceptable because merely redistributes and does not interfere with the economy, a false assertion.

Like Christopher Hitchens' "libertarian" argument for "free" health care, [1](that it makes you more free) the fatal flaw of this very similar article is its lack of attention to the fundamental paradoxes of socialism. As a pair the articles show that anyone can value culture and a leisurely, philosophical life.  Too they demonstrate that such leisure comes at a price. The question is "who pays it?" You or someone else? Eagleton's article has value insofar as it spurs the non-socialist to review an author often caricatured and scoffed at rather than studied. Such a love letter, though, however romantic and sincere, does not vindicate the ideology.

N.B. No doubt Eagleton's reference to Ludwig von Mises makes his apparently persuasive article, expertly tailored to appeal to a wide audience, more so by imbuing in it a semblance of equanimity and scholarly rigor. Readers should follow with Mises' "Socialism."


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