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ONLY FREEDOM WORKS

by Tim Rourke.

In his popular 1993 book, Working Harder Isn't Working, Bruce O'Hara concludes: "Fighting [technology] has made our lives harder and harsher, and hurt our home, the earth, but we can choose differently whenever we tire of the pain. Embracing the vision of leisure [with machines doing the work for us] will create lives of richness and abundance, even if there are those among us who must be dragged, kicking and screaming, into paradise." But the path into paradise isn't through legislating a shorter work week, as he proposes, which is dragging people kicking and screaming to where they are not ready to go yet, which has never worked well. I propose a guaranteed minimum income to be the simpler, less dogmatic route to the stated aims of reduced work times.

I feel I have some authority for writing on these subjects because my personal experience of lifelong unemployment and poverty gives me a proper perspective. I have had the time to think long and deeply about the causes of poverty. I have studied the basic principles of economics and political science through university courses and other sources.

The proponents of reduced work time say that if everyone works less, everyone will work. They believe that a linear relationship exists between the legislated hours of work and the level of unemployment. They believe unemployment exists only because technological improvements in the last fifty years, which reduce the demand for labor, have not been matched with progressive reductions in the hours of work, as they suppose happened in the previous one hundred fifty years. They believe that this reduction can be achieved now 'voluntarily' if 'the bottom is shielded' by increasing the minimum wage. They believe that this will result in people having more leisure and choosing to consume less, thus reducing the strain on the environment.

I say that reduced work time is the wrong answer to the wrong question. Of course reduced consumption and greater leisure are desirable, but can only be achieved by the reduction and elimination of poverty. This must be achieved as part of a comprehensive social and political restructuring. People look to these hopeless panaceas because the real challenge of getting rid of an outmoded social-political order is too much for them.

All the premises of reduced work time are fallacies. Work time groupies claim that reduced work time since the industrial revolution has raised living standards. But is it a case of improved living standards reducing work time? They also assume that technology creates unemployment. There is a clear correlation between technological advance and improved quality of life. There is no correlation between technological advance and reduced demand for labor. The present level of unemployment is near the norm for the industrial age.

Canada is not like the highly centralized, unionized, and socialized countries of the EEC which the reduced workweek proponents point to, for unfathomable reasons, as support for their case. In most of these countries, most social programs are financed through payroll taxes, there is a different attitude toward work, and so on: its like comparing apples and oranges. Even so, France found that a 10% cut in the work week only produced a 5% increase in employment, and only in the companies that participated. Among industrial countries there is no correlation between the legal hours of work and the unemployment rate.

The practical problems of shrinking the work week in Canada are mind-boggling, yet unlikely to produce any significant reduction in unemployment. There isn't and never has been a legal work week in Canada. Creating one runs into the typical Canadian jurisdictional problems. Even if it were possible, the Canadian Labor Congress has found that only 40% of potential workers are working as much as they are competent and willing to do. Therefore, the reduction in work time would have to be massive in order to create full employment. The corresponding reductions in income would bankrupt much of the work force and greatly reduce government revenues from income tax.

Reducing unemployment will not necessarily reduce poverty and will definitely not eliminate it. During the 1950's and 1960's, a period of unprecedented prosperity for some people, poverty increased for those who were left out of the boom; especially the disabled and elderly. Costs rose but their incomes did not. As well, full employment does not lead to personal freedom. Slaves always enjoyed full employment.

So, we can forget about any sort of job creation scheme solving our problems; it won't. People will continue to languish in greater numbers while we wait for the miracle to come along. The only way there ever has been or ever will be to eliminate what is called 'poverty' is to give people who are 'impoverished' enough money so that they are no longer 'poor.' In other words, to legislate a guaranteed income, which is sometimes called a 'social income' or a 'citizen's income.' Have the federal government pay everyone a basic income sufficient to met all basic needs, bypassing the jurisdictional problems. It eliminates the need for a 'huge welfare bureaucracy,' and shields its recipients from such victimization as vendettas against welfare scapegoats and attempts to use them as forced labor. It is based on simply acknowledging people's right to an adequate income.

Most criticism of guaranteed incomes arises from the judgmental and puritanical ethic that 'work is good for you' and that 'free money' encourages people to 'lay around.' Yes, unemployed people usually deteriorate physically and mentally. That is because they haven't the means to sustain their physical and mental well-being. If left alone, most people will find ways to give meaning to their lives, often in socially useful ways. Yes, there will be many people who won't accept this idea of people 'getting money for doing nothing,' just as there were people who couldn't accept women having the vote or people of non-european descent being allowed into the country, but they will have to learn to live with it.

But who is going to do the work? So who does the work now? It was calculated back in the 1950's that only about 20% of the work done for wages was needed to create all the goods and services necessary for human survival and well being, and the rest was essentially busy-work. More recent studies find that 40% of everything produced is useless. Was not one of the goals of reduced work time to reduce the stress of excess consumption upon the environment?

But people want to work? A guaranteed income does not prevent anyone from working all they want. It merely removes the coercive power of the employer from the individual and from the whole society.

There are less bilious objections to guaranteed incomes. For example, the cost of living varies across the country. But Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Health and Welfare Canada, and Statistics Canada have all the information on cost of living in each locality. Some claim that a guaranteed income cannot be implemented while unemployment is high, because it would be too expensive. Since unemployment is normally high, I guess this means that it cannot be done. But, as Bismarck put it, its cheaper than a revolution.

I say that the thing to be sought is security and autonomy of the person, which reduced hours of work will not produce because it cannot eliminate poverty, which can only be eliminated by a guaranteed income. The 'we want work' syndrome is the contemptible whine of the natural slave. Work does not make free, as in the Nazi slogan. Personal security and autonomy make free. Wage dependency is something to be eliminated in the way of slavery and serfdom.

The movement for reduced work time is a knee-jerk reaction to the present economic crisis and the best way for its more intelligent proponents to back away from it, once they have thought it through, is to declare a guaranteed income to be the best way to achieve the goals of reduced work time, and get to work on achieving it.