Deliberate Rest

A blog about getting more done by working less

Tag: political economy

Adam Smith disliked overwork

Adam Smith's tomb
Adam Smith’s tomb, Edinburgh

The report from The Mix about its four-day week had a quote from Adam Smith that “the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.”

Naturally, I had to track the quote down, and it’s from The Wealth of Nations, in the chapter “On the Wages of Labour.” I’ve added some paragraph breaks to make it a bit easier to read, but here’s the relevant section:

The liberal reward of labour, as it encourages the propagation, so it increases the industry of the common people. The wages of labour are the encouragement of industry, which, like every other human quality, improves in proportion to the encouragement it receives. A plentiful subsistence increases the bodily strength of the labourer, and the comfortable hope of bettering his condition, and of ending his days perhaps in ease and plenty, animates him to exert that strength to the utmost. Where wages are high, accordingly, we shall always find the workmen more active, diligent, and expeditious than where they are low: in England, for example, than in Scotland; in the neighbourhood of great towns than in remote country places. Some workmen, indeed, when they can earn in four days what will maintain them through the week, will be idle the other three.

This, however, is by no means the case with the greater part. Workmen, on the contrary, when they are liberally paid by the piece, are very apt to overwork themselves, and to ruin their health and constitution in a few years. A carpenter in London, and in some other places, is not supposed to last in his utmost vigour above eight years. Something of the same kind happens in many other trades, in which the workmen are paid by the piece, as they generally are in manufactures, and even in country labour, wherever wages are higher than ordinary. Almost every class of artificers is subject to some peculiar infirmity occasioned by excessive application to their peculiar species of work. Ramuzzini, an eminent Italian physician, has written a particular book concerning such diseases.

We do not reckon our soldiers the most industrious set of people among us. Yet when soldiers have been employed in some particular sorts of work, and liberally paid by the piece, their officers have frequently been obliged to stipulate with the undertaker, that they should not be allowed to earn above a certain sum every day, according to the rate at which they were paid. Till this stipulation was made, mutual emulation and the desire of greater gain frequently prompted them to overwork themselves, and to hurt their health by excessive labour.

Excessive application during four days of the week is frequently the real cause of the idleness of the other three, so much and so loudly complained of. Great labour, either of mind or body, continued for several days together, is in most men naturally followed by a great desire of relaxation, which, if not restrained by force or by some strong necessity, is almost irresistible. It is the call of nature, which requires to be relieved by some indulgence, sometimes of ease only, but sometimes, too, of dissipation and diversion. If it is not complied with, the consequences are often dangerous, and sometimes fatal, and such as almost always, sooner or later, brings on the peculiar infirmity of the trade.

If masters would always listen to the dictates of reason and humanity, they have frequently occasion rather to moderate than to animate the application of many of their workmen. It will be found, I believe, in every sort of trade, that the man who works so moderately as to be able to work constantly not only preserves his health the longest, but, in the course of the year, executes the greatest quantity of work.


Automation, leisure, and the problem of avoiding “overwork for some and starvation for others”

In her essay on the meaning of leisure, Washington Post editor Christine Emba notes that Uber recently announced that it would debut self-driving cars in Pittsburgh later this fall. This, she argues, marks another step toward a more-automated world, and underlines our need to think more clearly about the problem of leisure. As automation reduces the number of hours we need to work, we’ll need to be wise about how we spend that time.

But there are very different ways automation could affect leisure, and we can’t talk about “automation” without talking about who controls and benefits from automation. Let’s use the Uber situation to imagine two very different scenarios.

A tiny bit of background: What Uber is doing is retrofitting a bunch of Volvo SUVs with sensors, cameras, lidar, and computers that will drive the car (though a human will still be in the front seat as backup). So they’re not making self-driving cars; they’re making existing cars self-driving.

This is a crucial distinction, because it means this technology could be deployed in two very different ways.

In one scenario, Uber uses the technology itself to automate its own fleet of self-driving cars. In Pittsburgh, the cars prove a success (and if you can imagine any company making the argument that too few people were run over to stop deployment, it’s Uber), and the technology spreads to others cities. A year from now, Travis proudly stands up at the annual meeting and announces that 50,000 people who used to be contractors for Uber are now back on the streets. They were shock troopers in the greatest high-tech disruptions of a service industry in modern history, and now we’ve been able to cast them on the ash-heap of history. Suckers!

In the other scenario, though, Uber sells the self-driving car kits to anyone who wants to drive for Uber. (Once again, the number of kittens and grandmas who get run over during the trials is considered to be within acceptable parameters.)  A year from now, Travis proudly stands up at the annual meeting and announces that 50,000 people who had been driving for Uber are now in the robotics business: they buy cars, outfit them with self-driving car kits, and lease them back to Uber. These people have gone from being mere drivers, to being managers, small businessmen, entrepreneurs, etc.; they continue to work with Uber to push the boundaries of innovation blah blah blah; and Uber benefits from all this technology without having to buy a single damn car. It’s as if Henry Ford’s autoworkers had built their own factory lines, using their money rather than Ford’s.

See how they’re different? In one sense the outcome is the same: the workers drive fewer hours. But there’s a dramatic difference between being thrown out of work by the technology, and being in the robot business.

In his “In Praise of Idleness,” Bertrand Russell wrote about how automation was being unevenly applied, and that capitalists preferred to create “overwork for some and starvation for others,” rather than a world in which we all worked fewer hours and let the machines take care of the rest. This is a problem we face again; only with these technologies, we have a better shot at spreading around ownership in ways that enhance rather than degrade the living standards and livelihoods of workers.

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