My essay in (the new and exciting) Aeon magazine looking at Keynes’ suggestion that we could achieve decent living standards for all with an average of 15 hours a week of market work has had mostly favorable responses. But Kevin Vallier at the Bleeding Hearts Libertarian blog has now written a lengthy response and he doesn’t like it. Unfortunately, that’s about all I can say, since he throws a lot of adjectives (sectarian, morally impoverished and so on) at me without actually spelling out an objection.

Vallier’s response is in three parts. The first is a lengthy and fairly accurate, though hostile, summary of my general political position. He doesn’t offer a substantive criticism, but snipes about semantics Vallier objects, for example, to my “derisive” use of the term “market liberalism’ to describe “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years”. In fact, as I said in Zombie Economics, I picked the term precisely to avoid the pejorative connotations of the more commonly used “neoliberalism”[1]. What does Vallier propose here? I can’t spell out “the sum total of pro-market economic thought that has had some influence over the last fifty years” every time I want to refer to the ideas I’m criticising. In essence, I think he is upset that, by giving any name to the dominant ideas of recent decades, I am pointing out that they represent an ideology, with a history, rather than a set of timeless truths.

The second part of Vallier’s response is a summary of the main argument of my essay, but so brief that a reader who didn’t follow the link would have a very limited idea of what I was saying. The third part criticises me for advocating “coercion” against people who want to work hard and make money. Vallier doesn’t say what he means by this. The obvious incorrect inference, drawn by quite a few of his readers, is that I’m advocating statutory limits on hours of paid work[2]. However, he doesn’t seem to mean that. Rather, he seems to object to high income earners being required to pay taxes to support people who don’t work.

But this raises a puzzle. The only policy proposal I discuss in any detail is that for a guaranteed minimum income. But Vallier supports this – in fact, it’s pretty much the central distinction between Bleeding Heart Libertarians and the regular Republican+legal drugs kind.[3] So, is he inferring (correctly) that I’d propose a higher minimum than the BHLs? Or something else? I really don’t know.

In comments Vallier says

John (may I call you John?), I greatly appreciate your interest in my remarks. After reading your blogs and books over the last (eight?) years, I’m most curious to know whether you’ll respond in the style of a liberal perfectionist or the more politically liberal way Ryan suggests above.

Here’s roughly what I have in mind. The first approach would hold that I’m wrong to think a society really can be structured by institutions attractively neutral between a range of conceptions of the good and that you’re *just correct* that the ideals I describe are more morally defective than the forms of life a social democratic society would promote, perhaps because social democracy better promotes autonomy.

The second approach would hold that a social democratic society really is relatively neutral in the Rawlsian sense because it blocks institutional structures that compel people to work more than they would like.

I read the essay twice before summarizing it and I (obviously) gave it the perfectionist reading, which seems to me far more natural. But you wrote the essay!

This isn’t the way I’d think about things, but I would have thought it was pretty obvious from the tagline

The 15-hour working week predicted by Keynes may soon be within our grasp – but are we ready for freedom from toil?

and from the question

Supposing a Keynesian utopia is feasible, will we want it? Or will we prefer to keep chasing after money to buy more and better things?

that I intended the second of these readings. I argue that the recent trend to longer hours (at least for the core workforce) is an undesirable by-product of market liberalism, rather than a reflection of what people really value, but I also point to people who say the opposite.

fn1. There’s also the problem that the term is sometimes used in the US to describe Clinton-style “Third Way” Democrats
fn2. I briefly mention the loi Aubry, which limited working hours in France, but only to say that its erosion indicates a trend to longer hours of work in Europe.
fn3. Vallier mentions that this point has been disputed between members of BHL and members of Crooked Timber, but CT does not have a policy line (as Daniel Davies says, we span the gamut from social democrat to democratic socialist!). As was clear from my comments during that dispute, I’m more sympathetic to the idea that much existing intervention could be replaced by an adequate minimum income than are most of the CT members and commenters.

28 thoughts on “BHL on JMK

  1. @Jim Rose
    Nope, your preconceptions on division on house work is misplaced somewhat. Going more south, it is closer to such picture but not completely. There is an equitable share of work up north, while in south it is suported by many patriarchaly leaning phylosophy within women also supported by church that they have their place, but that is changing.

    In Croatia, which is south central Europe, on the coastal areas with long tradition of sailors, i have heard from few women that it is normal to be patient while their sailor husbands cheat on them. Many of sailor wives cheat too i would say. But it says on level of patriarchal power.

  2. Jordon, the Swedish time use survey 2010 found that Swedish women spent an average of 4 hours on unpaid household tasks. Swedish men spent an average of 45 minutes less on housework than women do.

    While tax rates are highest in Scandinavia, hours worked per working age adult in Scandinavia are significantly higher than in Continental Europe. Hours are higher because much of the higher government spending funds income transfers contingent on working.

    See tables 5 and 6 for discussions of hours worked by gender for Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden.

    Americans work more in the market. Europeans split their working time more evenly between home and market activities.

    The overall allocation of time for American and European men is similar.

    American women spend 28.7 hours working in the market and 30.1 working at home.

    European women allocate 20.7 hours of market work, 40.5 hours of home work). Time allocated to personal activities and leisure is essentially the same for these two groups

  3. I can remember Erich Fromm’s “Escape from freedom” p 226. The problem of freedom with it’s negative nature makes an individual an isolated being whose relationship to the world is distant and distrustful and whose self is weak and constantly threatened. Fromm thought the solution lay in Spontaneous activity which can enable one to overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of oneself. Spontaneity brings man closer to nature, a situation where work is not a compulsive activity to escape aloneness, not work as a relationship to nature to dominate it (which explains hostility to actions to protect the environment), not to worship and be enslaved by the product of one’s own hands but to become one with nature in the act of creation which affirms the self with nature. His view was that what is inherent in freedom, individuality and aloneness is dissolved by spontaneous action. This could lessen the Masochistic (people need to know their place, austerity, aesceticism) and Sadistic (same unfortunately) nature of the current dichotomy of work. However I suspect the drives are too strong and embedded to curb.

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