What is it about Americans that makes us so afraid of admitting that people ought to have free time — both for their own sake as individuals, and for the betterment of society?
There is a stigma associated with the idea that people have a right to recreation. It’s difficult enough convincing many right-wing Americans that everyone has a right to a job — but arguing that every person is entitled to leisure time is practically verboten even on the left. After all, a right to leisure, by implication, means a right to do as one pleases with one’s time — even if that doesn’t involve holding down a job and receiving compensation for said work.
It means, in other words, that you have a right to money without having to work for it, so that you can figure out the best way to realize your own individual potential through recreation.
The stigma surrounding this concept became pretty clear when there was a backlash to overview notes from a version of a Green New Deal proposal which said that there should be “economic security for all who are unable or unwilling to work.” While the immediate imperative there would be to guarantee that financial hardships wouldn’t befall even the willfully lazy — a group that Americans from both parties seem to feel deserve whatever misfortunes come to them — there is also the subtext that those who aren’t willing or able to work at traditional jobs may genuinely feel that their time would be better spent doing other things. The outrage, of course, was rooted in the fact that the rest of society would have to foot the bill.
The fact that we spend far more every year — quite literally trillions — on tax cuts for the super-rich, building up our military-industrial complex and incarcerating millions of our own citizens eludes these people. Some will protest against those egregious expenses on both moral and fiscal grounds, but virtually everyone seems to agree that the comparative pittance which would have to be spent guaranteeing a right to recreation to all Americans would be absolutely unacceptable.
Yet proponents of the Green New Deal aren’t the first ones to advocate for a right to recreation, although this has usually been linked to some form of work. When President Franklin Roosevelt outlined an Economic Bill of Rights in his 1944 State of the Union address, he mentioned “the right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation.” Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running for president in the 2020 election cycle, has advocated a “freedom dividend” of $1,000 each month that he argues would not only provide financial security for all Americans and empower workers against their employers, but also ensure recreation time that allows people to realize their full potential.
“[Universal Basic Income] increases entrepreneurship because it provides for basic needs in the early lean days of a company and acts as a safety net if the business fails,” Yang explains on his website. “It also gives you more consumers to sell to because everyone has more disposable income. The Roosevelt Institute found that a UBI would create 4.6 million jobs and grow the economy by 12 percent continuously. UBI would be the greatest catalyst for new jobs, entrepreneurship, and creativity we have ever seen.”
After pointing out that his freedom dividend would also improve the physical and mental health of recipients, he adds that universal basic income “increases art production, nonprofit work and caring for loved ones because it provides a supplementary income for those interested in labor that isn’t supported by the market.”
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg made a similar point in 2017, back when he was supposedly flirting with a presidential run, arguing that a universal basic income would “make sure that everyone has a cushion to try new ideas.”
This brings me to a quote from Mark Twain, uttered during an interview with The New York Times in 1905, that best sums up the deeper philosophical and sociological point which needs to be made. The quote began when he explained that, despite being a prolific author, he had never done a day’s work in his life.
No, Sir, not a day’s work in all my life. What I have done I have done, because it has been play. If it had been work I shouldn’t have done it.
Who was it who said, “Blessed is the man who has found his work”? Whoever it was he had the right idea in his mind. Mark you, he says his work – not somebody else’s work. The work that is really a man’s own work is play and not work at all. Cursed is the man who has found some other man’s work and cannot lose it. When we talk about the great workers of the world we really mean the great players of the world. The fellows who groan and sweat under the weary load of toil that they bear never can hope to do anything great. How can they when their souls are in a ferment of revolt against the employment of their hands and brains? The product of slavery, intellectual or physical, can never be great.
To be clear: I am not arguing that society doesn’t need workers, or that laziness shouldn’t be stigmatized. What I am arguing is that people often achieve their best selves when they aren’t on the job, and that society is often best positioned to benefit from each individual’s unique talents and abilities when they are figuring out how to excel with their gifts regardless of whether the marketplace will accommodate them.
Therein lies the wisdom of Twain’s observation, as well as this one from LiveScience’s Simon Gottschalk:
Much research – and many spiritual and philosophical systems Buddhism, for example, suggest that detaching from daily concerns and spending time in simple reflection and contemplation are essential to health, sanity and personal growth.
Similarly, to equate “doing nothing” with nonproductivity betrays a short-sighted understanding of productivity. In fact, psychological research suggests that doing nothing is essential for creativity and innovation, and a person’s seeming inactivity might actually cultivate new insights, inventions or melodies.
It is notable that few people begrudge those who are born into extreme wealth and can afford to wile away their hours indulging in pleasurable activities. It is only when the rest of society says that they too should have the ability to recreate as they choose — and not just for pleasure, but so they can find the best versions of themselves — that the intelligentsia reacts with horror.
I think it is high time to bust that stigma, to touch that third rail, to move the right to recreation within the confines of the Overton Window. If people have a right to health, then they have a right to recreation regardless of whether they have a job. Similarly if society is to benefit as much as possible from everyone’s unique individual skill sets, then we need to provide every person with the ability to explore those skill sets regardless of whether they can find employment doing them.
Society is harmed, and individual rights are abridged, when a person does not have time to play because society does not allow them to do that as “work.”