My last post on the opportunities presented by “The Great Stagnation” got a bit of attention, and I’m heartened by that because I’d like to develop my conception of “opting out” a bit more in later posts. Today I’d just like to respond to my friend and Colleague Tate Watkins who reacted to my post noting that “most people don’t want any more leisure. People don’t work 20 hours a week because they would have to make up the difference ‘playing with [their] families and reading books.’”
Tate says that spending that much time doing nothing, and doing it with their families, is likely a net minus for most people. I think he’s absolutely right, so I guess I need to define what I mean by “leisure” when I say that “the cost of leisure is going down” allowing us to consume more of it.
I’m not sure economists have a very clear definition of “leisure.” Generally it’s thought of as any activity that’s not work.(Please correct me.) I think that’s a good start, but the way I conceive leisure it could include work, just not work that one has to do to earn income.
Take for example Cato’s Bob Levy, who is one of the persons I most admire in this world. Bob got his PhD in business in 1966 and started an investment technologies firm that he built up and sold in 1991. At this point, Bob was financially independent and could lead a life of leisure. What did he do? He came to George Mason Law and pursued a law degree. In his 50s he interned at IJ and clerked for federal judges, just like other bright people out of law school. After that he served full-time as a legal scholar at Cato and, as far as I know, always contributed to the Institute more than he took in salary. Do you call Bob’s activity work or leisure?
Now, Bob was able to pursue his leisure activities because he worked hard to accumulate wealth. But what if we approached it from the other direction? If the activities you want to pursue are inexpensive because the cost of leisure is coming down, then perhaps you can “opt out,” pursue leisure, and cover your living expenses with minimum work. Consider the woman I wrote about yesterday. She was supporting herself and her husband on $24,000 a year she makes through bloggin and web design. She fills her time with outdoor activities and volunteering.
A couple of things to keep in mind: To do this one would have to probably accept a standard of living that is at or below the median. But of course this ignores Tyler’s point that increases to happiness are more and more becoming internal to the human mind and aren’t captured in the usual living standard measures. Also, it seems to me that the option to “opt out” will be available first to knowledge workers because they have greater flexibility about their work and because they are more likely to be the ones to enjoy the gains from internal economies.