Over at AEIdeas, James Pethokoukis challenges our attitudes about work and leisure by drawing a helpful contrast between economists John Maynard Keynes and Deirdre McCloskey.

First, he points to “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren,” in which Keynes frames our economic pursuits as a means to a leisurely end:

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem-how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Then, he draws the contrast, relying on Deirdre McCloskey’s The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce. In the book, McCloskey quotes Studs Terkel, who eloquently describes a job “as a search, too, for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for astonishment rather than torpor; in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying.”

Here’s McCloskey:

It is not merely through the piling up of goods that the market system succeeds. It is through the jobs themselves. Respect for work, I have noted, has been historically rare. Until the quickening of commerce in bourgeois societies, in fact, work except for praying and fighting was despised. … The historical antiwork attitude may been what prevented classical Mediterranean civilization or medieval Chinese society from industrializing. Nowadays, it is a problem for many poor societies. Woman and slaves work. Men smoke.

As I’ve discussed previously, changing our basic perspectives on work can have significant and widespread effects on society and civilization. As McCloskey’s analysis of economic history illuminates, some such shifts have already made a mark.

Developing a basic respect and appreciation for the meaning inherent in and derived by our work is a crucial part of furthering this shift, yet as we observe with Keynes, a man who was writing smack in the middle of unprecedented industrialization, we see how easy it is to disregard the very attitudes and moral orientations that help us achieve prosperity and leisure in the first place. Leisure, once achieved, can far too quickly become our idol, just like work itself.

Purchase Work: The Meaning of Your Life.

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