"The object in the present state of society is to multiply labour," wrote William Godwin in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, "in another state it will be to simplify it." "The genuine wealth of man is leisure," he declared in a subsequent essay, "when it meets with a disposition to improve it. All other riches are of petty and inconsiderable value." Godwin concluded the latter essay, "Of Riches and Poverty," with the question: "Is there not a state of society practicable, in which leisure shall be made the inheritance of every one of its members?"
In Thoughts on Man: his nature, productions and discoveries, Godwin clearly articulated what had been a persistent motif in his earlier writing – that leisure was no less an essential element of a person's calling than was one's trade or occupation:
The river of human life is divided into two streams; occupation and leisure—or, to express the thing more accurately, that occupation, which is prescribed, and may be called the business of life, and that occupation, which arises contingently, and not so much of absolute and set purpose, not being prescribed: such being the more exact description of these two divisions of human life, inasmuch as the latter is often not less earnest and intent in its pursuits than the former.
Godwin stressed that leisure was of primary importance for self improvement, citing the example "that schoolboys learn as much, perhaps more, of beneficial knowledge in their hours of play, as in their hours of study." Godwin's reference to occupation clearly evokes Calvin's doctrine of the worldly calling. Repeatedly in Thoughts on Man Godwin reprised the proposition "that every human creature, idiots and extraordinary cases excepted, is endowed with talents, which, if rightly directed, would shew him to be apt, adroit, intelligent and acute, in the walk for which his organisation especially fitted him."
It is fitting that this conference is, virtually at least, taking place in Manchester. In late November, 1833, "working people of Manchester, and their friends," met at Prince's Tavern to form the Society for Promoting National Regeneration with the objective "to remove the commercial and social evils, which are fast destroying every vestige of happiness and order." The highest priority reform advocated by the Society was reducing the length of the working day. Seventy-six years later, pioneering University of Manchester economist, Sydney J. Chapman's theoretical analysis of the hours of labour vindicated the Society's intuition about the prime importance of reducing the hours of work.
Over the past quarter of a century or so, ecological economists and degrowth advocates have included proposals for shorter working time in their programs. Scores of scholarly articles have been published examining some aspect of the relationship between hours of paid work and the environment. I confess I haven't read them all. But I have read enough of them to form an impression of how most authors view the contribution of work-time reduction.
Work time reduction is often advocated as a way to mitigate the unemployment effects of a low growth or no growth policy. Reducing the hours of work is presented as a benign way to absorb the effects of productivity gains without expanding consumption. The time released from working time is presented as a "normal good," leisure, that can serve as a substitute for manufactured commodities. These intuitively appealing rationales are often supported by time series data that show countries that work less emit less carbon dioxide, even controlling for income differences. A minority of studies challenge those empirical results.
All that is well and good as far as it goes. But there needs to be more depth to the analysis...