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How Spare Time Legislation Impacts the Workforce in the West

How Spare Time Legislation Impacts the Workforce in the West Is the labour market capable of regulating itself?

With today’s modern world being as complex and susceptible to constant change as it is, it is safe to assume that few people, if any, would be able to envision a lifestyle without some basic form of balance. Said balance is sure to include a set of principles, values and rules within which our existence is not only shaped, but also sustained and enabled, while maintaining predictability, order and continuity in our social and economic lives.

Without balance, order and discipline, people are left adrift, in a constant state of hopeless wandering, brought by a lack of direction and resulting in anxiety or anomie. Such is, therefore, the goal of rules: to establish a framework for an individual’s purpose. This framework ought to include many things, such as rights, liberties, principles, virtues, values and, last but not least, responsibilities.

However, there is a misleading pattern, present in the minds of many, brought about by a lack of logical consistency and, dare I say, aggressively promoted by what is referred to in socio-economic and political terms as “Leftism”, in its many forms. I’m talking, naturally, about the pattern of mixing up terms, elevating mere virtues, moral and noble as they are, to the status of rights and consequently declaring them legally as such, at the unfortunate expense of whoever is unjustly left to pay after their implementation and enforcement.

We witness such points being made all the time, not just in the media and academia, but also in conversations with ordinary individuals. The so-called rights to free healthcare, free education, even free housing are “hot topics” within the leftist political discourse in the West. And while the right has attempted to counter the arguments made in favour of these pseudo-entitlements with basic logic and terminology – the old “no such thing as a free lunch” explanation –, little progress has been made in changing the minds of the ardent advocates of social policies or in correcting the general course of societal systems. In this regard, the Left has been more than triumphant at allowing the dust to settle on deeper, more vague issues.

As Nestlé’s CEO’s stance on the “free water as a human right” topic (specifically the idea that bottling and distribution services are not and cannot be free) helped the Socialist crowd advance their anti-free market position by capitalizing on human emotion, the Ayn Rand Institute debate on seeing privacy as a virtue rather than a right has found much attention being drawn away from it.

The bottom line is, in a society where it is extremely difficult to convince people that “paid for with taxpayer money” is not synonymous with “free”, properly articulating the differences between a right and a virtue within a logically consistent moral framework seems like an almost impossible mission. I shall, however, attempt to undergo such a task, the topic being none other than something most dear to us all: free time. 

All hail the mighty Leisure! 

For many of us, spare time has become something quite akin to second nature. Counting the weeks left before the Holidays, the days left before the weekend or even the hours left before the end of the workday, pupils and students almost involuntarily checking their phones or watches every few minutes to see how much time is left until the break, all of these behaviours show that, in the hearts of people, free time is perceived as a well-deserved breather, a period of disconnect from an otherwise active and demanding work life. Surprising as it may sound though, this was not always the case, not even in the West.

In fact, up until around 100 to 160 years ago, the workweek had a total of six out of seven days to it, with no particular regulation on hours worked. And even then, the one day which was free was not the result of the State’s or the Crown’s grand generosity, but it was rather solely for religious reasons. For Christians, the day of prayer was Sunday, for Jews it was Saturday and for Muslims, Friday.

That being said, there wasn’t any particular displeasure among free men generated by this type of schedule (the serfs and slaves are a totally different issue). In the farming economy, peasants were, for the most part, capable of picking their own hours, so they had no one to demand free time from but themselves.

Things started to change in the late 19th century U.S., when the Industrial Revolution came and took a lot of people from their farms and placed them into factories. All of a sudden, most of these workers found themselves restricted to a tight schedule, answering to one or more bosses and, given the nature of working with machinery, being easily replaceable. Unhappy about the working conditions, some of these factory labourers came together and started an organization called the National Labour Union, which had the goal of applying pressure on Congress to declare the eight-hour workday as law. Because there were plenty of Christian and Jewish workers, that essentially meant a forty-hour workweek, since Saturdays and Sundays were off the table.

Despite the movement being an initial failure, it was the beginning of a series of historical events which ended on October 26, 1940, with the Fair Labour Standards Act going into effect, mandating the eight-hour workday. Relatively soon, though at different moments in time, the rest of the Western world followed suit. 

State vs. Market – Which does it better? 

While many employees hold the date mentioned above in high regard, seeing it as a huge victory for the working class, few of them are aware of the fact that the American Congress was, sadly, fourteen years late to the party.

In 1926, almost a decade and a half earlier, Henry Ford, the owner of Ford Motor Companies, voluntarily adopted the “eight hours a day / five days a week” principle without any pressure from anybody in particular. In fact, the reason behind this decision was quite a business-oriented one, allowing the workers a healthy amount of leisure time and increasing their wages ensures two positive outcomes. First, they will be more productive upon their return from the weekend and, second, their loyalty to the company will tremendously increase, leading to their buying automobiles from Ford himself instead of his competitors.

Indeed, the self-regulatory nature of the free market has proven to be more beneficial to both employers and employees, not to mention the overall economy, than the public sector could ever hope to become.

Which begs a series of questions: What would today’s spare time be like, assuming its management were to be left in the hands of the market instead of the state? Would that be better or worse than what we have today? How does state regulation alter the allocation of time, effort and human resources through its leisure time policies? Is the market allocation optimal?

Below, I will try and individually address as many of the key aspects of the issue as possible. 

Practical implications 

Does it even make sense? 

When you look at a law which explicitly tells people how they must allocate their own time and the time of others, one of the first thoughts you might have is “Wait a moment, you can’t really control this, can you?”.

I am in no way suggesting that the forty-hour workweek is not beneficial or that people are against it somehow. I am merely trying to point out the fact that simply making a law which states “You aren’t allowed to coerce someone into working more than X amount of time” is almost non-sensical, since neither the use nor the threat of using force were ever part of the discussion. “Wage slavery”, as Marxists put it, does not exist.

The proof is as simple as it is obvious. Being unsatisfied, at any moment in time, with the working arrangement as per the contract, the employee has the freedom to leave and never return without legally owing anything to his (now former) employer.

The problem is clearly of a more subtle nature. What the law hopes to achieve is for the employer to neither be able to withhold payment from the workers under the pretense that they did not spend more than an arbitrary time limit on the job, nor to formally schedule their program in a way which exceeds that given time limit. This creates a number of complications, which I will address in the following paragraphs 

Does it even work? 

The belief that such a measure will magically solve the problem stems from the same naivety which breeds most economic regulations. In reality, a lot of members of the working class have witnessed the exact opposite of an improvement. Below I have listed some possible (and real) scenarios which depict how things really play out beneath the appearance of a forty-hour workweek.

- You may contractually have to work for eight hours a day, but your boss or manager will informally tell you that sometimes you might have to do some over-time because of various reasons.

- If you refuse, demanding your “employee rights” to be respected, they will find reasons to fire you.

- In an interview for the job, you will be tossed aside in favour of someone willing to walk the extra mile.

- You may not be allowed to work late at the office (or wherever), which is why taking work to do home is not an uncommon practice.

- You are always in danger of being replaced by someone willing to “ignore” the law.

- Restricting yourself to a tight schedule makes advancing in your career quite problematic.

- A lot of the assignments you receive may require a lot more working hours than what the contract says, but in that case the blame can be put on the worker for not being efficient enough time-wise.

- This time restriction may create a scarcity psychological effect in the minds of entrepreneurs, so in an attempt to get their money’s worth out of you, they might make you work harder in those eight hours than they would have made you work in nine in the absence of the regulation.

The list can go on, but I believe the point is clear. State intervention cannot stand in the way of the market without doing serious damage and, in the case of people’s free time, that damage is readily apparent. 

Does it benefit everyone equally? 

If all individuals, as well as all fields in which they operate are unique in their own way, then common sense demands that schedules themselves should be adaptable in accordance with the real needs and abilities of each employee and each job.

Ascribing the same tight working window to every single employee and, in doing so, drastically reducing the flexibility they might enjoy in a free-market scenario will unavoidably halt both productivity and morale. This type of forced coordination may have worked, albeit with significant economic costs, among the factory workers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but we cannot superficially impose that same system today and expect the exact same outcome in socio-economic development.

I will further elaborate upon this in the next section of the article, since the pragmatic and ethical aspects of this issue have, in my opinion, a strong tendency to intertwine. 

Ethical implications 

Poor allocation of human resources and perverse incentives 

Limiting any resource that someone might need in order to properly fulfill a given task (in this case, time) is implicitly going to result not only in lower productivity, but also in an inefficient placement of human resources, in such a way that hard-working people will potentially be tossed aside and lazy people will rise to the top. Say, for instance, that a factory owner has to pick between two possible new employees. One of them, called Bob, is competent, but lazy. He is capable of manufacturing ten pieces per hour, but is willing to work no more than eight hours per day. The other contestant, John, is newer in the field, so not as productive as Bob is, but he is more hard-working and determined to get the job. He can only build nine pieces per hour, but he would happily spend up to even ten hours a day at the factory.

A simple mathematical illustration of the market-state comparison will shed some light on how public intervention is not only unethical, but leads to less desirable outcomes. 

Situation One: Laissez-Faire Capitalism 

Under a free market, the outputs of both Bob and John would look like this:

- Bob: 10 pieces/hour => 80 pieces in 8 hours => 80 pieces/day

- John: 9 pieces/hours => 90 pieces in 10 hours => 90 pieces/day

It is fairly obvious that any reasonable entrepreneur would pick John over Bob under natural circumstances. Hard work trumps laziness, and not just in caeteris paribus conditions.

Now let us have a look at how things would look like in post-1940 U.S. 

Situation Two: Mandated Forty-Hour Workweek 

If both Bob and John have to spend no more than eight hours each day at the factory, the situation changes radically:

- Bob: 10 pieces/hour => 80 pieces in 8 hours => 80 pieces/day

- John: 9 pieces/hour => 72 pieces in 8 hours => 72 pieces/day

State intervention gives the factory boss little choice but to hire the lazy one. Doing the moral thing and picking John over Bob will lead to severe losses in terms of opportunity costs (a daily loss of eight pieces), and therefore income. Doing the right thing literally becomes a burden too hard to bear.

This is, ultimately, what the forced leveling of working conditions does to businesses and, implicitly, the economy. Determined workers are tossed aside in favour of indolent ones and the whole process of human resource allocation is being altered, sacrificing the productive for the sake of slackers. 

The right to contract 

Dictating how a voluntary interaction/exchange between two consenting adults must go is fundamentally opposed to basic ethical principles. If most people refuse to spend more than one third of a day at the workplace it is their right, but they are neither entitled to the money and opportunities offered by their bosses, nor do they have the authority to tell someone else who is willing to work for longer than that that they cannot do it.

The bottom line is that an individual should definitely have the right to decide for himself, but not for somebody else. You cannot oppress others as a means to escape your own predicament.

The logic employed by many is that inconvenient contractual demands are, by themselves, a source of oppression. That greedy capitalists prey upon the working class’ vulnerable circumstances in order to be able to give them a brutal ultimatum: work or starve. Because of that, any action, coercive as it might be, by the state in order to limit the negotiating power of business owners and lift the masses out of poverty and economic distress is not only moral and justified, but necessary.

Proving that this is nothing but wordplay is simple. It is not your boss forcing you to work for him, it is your own human condition and economic circumstances that demand you seek employment. Your employer is simply looking to engage in a mutually beneficial exchange with you: your services for his money. To say that he must also take into consideration all of your needs (including leisure time) in order to not mercilessly exploit you implies the idea that he must be made responsible for you on a personal level, a responsibility which no free man can be forced to take.

Ultimately, everybody has the right to be left alone and to mind his own business, so long as they are not unfairly trespassing against somebody else.

If there are people who have no choice but to sell their labour for scraps in order to make ends meet, that is a terribly unfortunate situation to be in, but it is impossible to tax or regulate a nation into prosperity. Declaring poverty to be a crime is as ridiculous as it sounds. 

Closing remarks 

While spare time and the regulatory reforms surrounding it can be delicate subjects to many audiences, I hope that historical and empirical evidence, as well as basic economic thinking and verbally deductive concepts, are able to prove that maximizing one’s access to leisure and recreational moments is not a task to be placed on the shoulders of the state.

The productive nature of freedom and markets are more likely to both create and successfully maintain an optimal balance between effort and leisure, between working and resting and between diligence and respite.

As well-meaning as a public authority may be, for a variety of reasons, it is clear that interfering with the natural way of resource management oftentimes leads to less-than-ideal outcomes.

And there is no resource in this world more valuable and precious than time.

 
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OEconomica No. 1, 2016