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October 09, 2012



Those unfortunate enough to lose their jobs will be very fortunate indeed if they are supported by the UK benefit system - at least before they have lost everything they accumulated during a lifetime of work.
And perhaps you should visit a few of Britain's new leisure class to see just what kind of culture they are breeding.


Brilliant! Saying the un-sayable. well done Chris. And Bertrand Russell, doesn't he write well? So clear, so simple.


It's an interesting argument but I'm not sure that Bertrand Russell's thoughts are apposite. It's a prejudicial view, perhaps, but I suspect that people who avoid work spend far more time playing Call of Duty than "cultivat[ing] the arts and discover[ing] the sciences".

The "taste" point is rather dubious as well as the argument is surely that lots of people don't enjoy their labours. That's what makes it galling for them to lose part of their returns to aid people who have avoided the same inconvenience.

None of this applies, of course, to the thousands for whom there are no jobs to get.

Account Deleted

Osborne's vignette implies that idleness is both innate and consistent. Some people are naturally idle and will always be idle; some are hard-working and will always be so. Of course, if idleness was really innate, there would be no logical reason for disincentivising it, as it would not be a matter of personal choice. We'd just have to accomodate it as a fact of life, but given his enthusiasm for penalising the disabled, who do not choose to be so, perhaps he is really discriminating by state rather than intent.

The real argument in favour of idleness is that it promotes innovation and thereby economic growth. Idleness leaves one open to many more stimuli than any repetitve job can provide (I'm assuming the shift-worker is not a professional footballer), assuming you don't just lie under the duvet (though even then, unstressed daydreaming may still do the job). The key to unlocking this potential is a basic income, which even conservatives like Hayek and Friedman advocated.

The guarantee of an unconditional income allows you to take greater risks in pursuing ideas, both commercial and social. Most will fail, but some will succeed, and that includes some that would never have been attempted without the guarantee. If you don't believe in central planning, and trust to the mysterious wisdom of the market, then the optimal is best served by maximising the ability of all citizens to pursue hare-brained schemes. Of course this assumes a basic income is sufficient to flourish, rather than just avoid starvation.

Ironically, a basic income would also allow for the "labour market flexibility" that the Tories are always banging on about, by effectively nationalising redundancy (the quid pro quo would be higher corporation tax so successful businesses indirectly subsidise startups).

PS: Dominic, you should be wary of being judgmental about other people's culture. 200 years the good-for-nothing peasantry were composing folk music when they should have been tilling the fields. Fortunately the invention of workhouses soon showed them the error of their feckless ways.


" Idleness leaves one open to many more stimuli than any repetitve job can provide (I'm assuming the shift-worker is not a professional footballer), assuming you don't just lie under the duvet (though even then, unstressed daydreaming may still do the job)."

I'd like to think that's right, but I'm a little doubtful. I think you are using "idleness" in the sense of leisure. You're right if idleness or leisure means (a) not having a regular job AND (b) spending your time like some 17th century natural philosopher. But for every Robert Boyle using his wealth to experiment, I'm sure there were lots of backwoods squires who just drank and shot things.

You want people to have a chance to research/think/ experiment in a haphazard way while not in regular employment. I don't disagree. But that's not quite the same as giving them a chance to do nothing.


If it is so unfair to collect benefits ask the still employed worker if he would like to trade places with the unemployed worker?

Bernie Gudgeon

Bertrand Russell was also fond of quoting Plato and other Greek philosophers’ contention, that leisure is essential to wisdom, ‘which will, therefore, not be found in those who have to work for their living, but only amongst those who have independent means or who are relieved by the State from anxieties as to their subsistence.’ As a self-avowed idler I’m a big adherent, though the wisdom windfall seems a long time coming. Most people I know would be lost without their work; very few could cope with idleness, enforced or otherwise. I sense some people are born to idleness, for others the condition is necessary acquired discipline.

The Thought Gang

I find this argument 'for welfare' more compelling than the (for example) Worstall one, which is that welfare is the price we pay because we do not wish to see people dying on the streets. We should see it not as a necessary evil to enable us to sleep at night, but a fair price to pay for what those of us who work enjoy. Especially as many of us who do work are hogging the opportunities available, for our own gain, rather than sharing them with those who are idle. How much would unemplpoyment fall if everyone worked fewer hours or, perish the thought, fewer days?

All that said, if we are to accept not working as a valid choice for people to make, then the differential does need to be clear. The man who gets up for work needs to understand the additional value he gains from that, and the man who chooses not to needs to understand the value he forgoes. High benefit withdrawl rates, and taxes on the lowest paid therefore prevent a problem, so does social support for lifestyles out of reach of many who work. Of course, dealing with these are key policy objectives of the tories (and broadly supported by Labour, albeit universally derided by most on the left who care to venture an opinion.. they, too, need to embrace the idea of worklessness as a choice, after so long claiming that it never is).

For it to work (and be accepted) then there must be a demonstrable gap, at least in financial terms, between those who make the varying choices. The obsessions we see with 'relative' poverty (et al) make this problematic… because those who would choose to not work, but embrace the arts and/or 'call of duty', would forever be championed as 'impoverished', simply out of their being referenced to people who have sacrificed the time they might spend doing those frilly things for a bit of hard cash. We must recognise what the non-working have, not only what they don't have.

It all does, rather, point us back in the direction of a basic citizens income, doesn't it?


It's a fair (ugh, that word again) defence, but I think it frames the issue incorrectly. The working person may reasonably see it as a transfer of their tax dollar and have questions about its effectiveness. All too often we forget that the dole must come from others' pockets (deficit spending notwithstanding).

It's also not clear that there is a shortage of jobs, or a shortage of innovation and initiative. That's not a knock on those unable to find employment, but rather on the fact that there is in all likelihood a teleology behind this condition.

We expect every able adult citizen to be employed, or to have a voluntary dependency on someone who is. If there is a temporary displacement, it is probably appropriate for society to assist. If the displacement is more than temporary, society may reasonably wonder why the social contract has broken down.

Account Deleted

The key to understanding idleness is to accept that it is a condition that we are all capable of enjoying, rather than a congenital defect. The mistake is to assume that some people are idlers and nothing else, while other are "strivers" and nothing else.

Under a basic income, most people will move freely from periods of idleness to periods of work, because the latter is the way you'll get the money to buy cool stuff (a basic income won't enable this any more than benefits do). There will be a minority that is always idle, and a minority that is never idle, but the majority will mix the two.

The limited real-life experiments with this show that most people keep on working, with limited reductions in hours for working mothers and students. The truth is that it's only a minority that will use the guarantee of a basic income to pursue an idea, but this minority in turn is many times greater than the number that do so today, with all the costs and risks that this currently entails.


Once more, you address the key questions that precede the study of capitalism.
The cardinal sin of economics is the neglect of such questions (and not the use of the representative agent in models, although it is most likely a sin as well).

I would however say that Marxists are only partially correct. The reasoning applies not only to capitalists and workers, but also to masters and servants, the strong and the weak, and more generally to any class of people with power over another class. Capitalism is only one form of power, and not necessarily the worst one.


Might "types of fairness" be the same as "values"?

Surely an elected government is justified in using policy to impose one value above others.

On cold-calling people to sell PPI compensation:
I spoke to a former mortgage broker a couple of weeks ago - he used to be "on £80k", but took a huge drop in income once the banks dried up. His mortgage payments fell behind (interest only - wot?), so he's begun work in a call centre for PPI claims, down to £18k basic. "But the top guys pull in £60-70k in commission".

Figures eerily similar! Wishful thinking or reality?

The gamekeeper-turned-poacher theme in financial services is common (eg. EAs going into debt management), so I wonder if it's a zero sum game. Somehow there may always be the same absolute level of employment and rent-seeking.


I think

people will do the jobs that need doing because deep down they like to work

is as much a fiction as

people can walk away from an unfair job conditions because there is a free market.

In particular, if there was such a strong desire to work, there wouldn't be any need for stimulus to lower unemployment. People might well need the money to live on, but they wouldn't be idle, they would already be out improving their neighborhoods.

Alastair Harris

this drivel is neither a defence for idleness (a condition which you clearly don't understand) nor an argument for the status quo. But more importantly you have completely missed the point Osborne is making.


@ Alastair Harris

Why are the points made above drivel?
What point of Osborne's has been missed?


I feel like a few days off. Please let me know where I should send my invoice so that you can fund it.


Peter Emms

It is clear that today's freeloaders are those who work long hours expecting the rest of us to pick up the tab for all those un-needed cops, social workers and benefit workers taking care of their ferile kids, the unemployed and their abandoned communities.


The error in your argument: "there is a shortage of jobs". There is NO shortage of tasks that could be done: There is a shortage of skills. The layabouts need to skill up.


To put things another way, Britain's GDP has doubled since the seventies, and yet there hasn't been that great a reduction in average hours worked. We'd be much better off enforcing shorter working hours, then more people could enjoy both employment and leisure.


On what grounds do people equate unemployment with idleness? Everything takes longer and more effort when you've an income that is below subsistence. Weekly shop in a supermarket? No, several shops in several places chasing the lowest prices. Service washes? No, you can't afford to pay other people to do things for you. Bus or tube? bus, of course, if you're not walking. Ready meals or make-your-own? What do you think? I've worked with countless idle, clock watching civil servants (not their fault they've got nothing to do and showing initiative is a no-no).
This is completely by-the-by as I agree with the points in this post.


@Murray On the face of it, of course there is no shortage of jobs. within 30 seconds any of us can search online and find a vacancy that needs filling or work that needs to be done.

Society can manage with a small amount of unemployment however we're struggling with high levels of unemployment (my area is 8%), which in turn create the problem of underemployment.

We're conditioned from an early age to believe that every adult should be in some form of employment or (in a socially accepted form) financially dependant on another. However the brutal reality is that businesses have no obligation to hire people. Employees cost money and this "problem" can be "solved" through automation or more commonly through efficiency savings, which eliminate jobs for real people.

chris g

When I'm idling I like nothing better than to be accompanied by the southern-honeyed voice of Jolie Holland - good sir you are a man of taste!


I think this article demonstrates the very dangers of idleness. The author clearly has too much time on his hands to contemplate ways of twisting logic. A distinction should be drawn between not idleness and working and idleness and productivity.
Far too many fallible humans choose idleness over productivity when there is no clear consequence to that choice, just as far too many fallible humans chose to overeat and not exercise because the consequences are vague and delayed.
Both choices lead to a bloated sick society.

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Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.


"If anyone will not work, neither shall he eat."

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