Should Americans Work More? Absolutely Not.

Josh Barro has a piece at Upshot about increasing work hours. In it, he plays the irritating game of describing certain institutional choices that help to determine how many hours people work as "distortions" and also wrongly downplays the degree to which the US truly is a bizarrely overworked country.

We Work A Lot

Here is Barro:

It wouldn’t be unthinkable for Americans to work more. While the average American workweek is already longer than in most high-income countries, the Irish and the South Koreans show it’s possible for an advanced country’s workers to put in more hours than we do.

While workers in Ireland and South Korea do work more total hours than the US, they don't work more hours relative to their level of productivity:

Normally, when a country increases its per-hour productivity, it reduces the amount of work it does. This is because life is not all about maximizing total GDP for the sake of it, but also occasionally includes such things as spending time with family and friends and pursuing personal projects. Relative to the general tendency across countries, US workers put in 462 more hours per year than the US level of GDP/hour would predict. For Ireland, that same number is 358 hours. For South Korea (whose GDP/hour is the same as Greece's), it's even lower at 274 hours.

All three of these countries are well above the norm, but none more so than the US:

It's not just these one-year comparisons either. Consider change over time since 1970 for the countries whose data runs back that far.

Despite doubling our GDP/hour over this period, the US only cut 114 hours off its work year, a 6% reduction. Every other country cut hours further, with the top being France whose workers cut 518 hours off its work year, a 26% reduction.

Given our high GDP/hour, there is absolutely no reason the US needs to be working as much as we currently do, and certainly no reason why we need to be working more. While I can't speak for Barro obviously, to me, the idea that we shoud be trying to reshape our institutions so as to claim an even greater share of workers' scarce lives for toil is unthinkable.

What Is the Undistorted Work Level?

For much of the rest of the piece, Barro keeps appealing to this strange phantom idea that he calls a work distortion. He cites Michael Strain as saying taxes and transfers create "distortions against work." He says lowering taxes, reducing benefit generosity, and increasing the retirement age would "reduce distortions against work." And so on.

When you talk about "distorting" against work, you implicity suggest that there is such a thing as an undistorted baseline. But what does this baseline look like? What is the work level where there are no policy-induced distortions?

Well, if you are being 100% non-ideological about it (as I always am), it's clearly the case that the perfectly undistorted work level is that which would obtain in the hypothetical world in which we have entirely repealed all economic laws. That includes, most importantly, repealing property laws and contract laws, but every other economic regulation as well. To determine what the undisorted baseline is, literally every law pertaining to resource use and control must go.

Whenever I argue for the repeal of all economic laws (including property law), which is by the way the true libertarian set of institutions, I am constantly told that this world would feature dramatically reduced work levels. The reasoning is that without the government-imposed institution of property, people would not have much incentive to work, as things they exert effort to produce could be grabbed and used by anyone. What this means then is that the basic institutions of capitalist economies (property in particular) create massive distortions in favor of work. Big Government, through its creation and enforcement of economic institutions, has put us probably 1000 or more hours over the undistorted work level baseline.

What this means, then, is that any policy that brings us closer to the work level that would obtain in a propertyless world with no economic rules actually removes government-imposed work distortions. Every work hour we cut unwinds evil government economic distortion, at least up to a point.

Of course, when Josh Barro talks about government work "distortions," he doesn't actually do an exhaustive account of the effect government economic rules have on work. Instead, like everyone else in the ideological media, without ever arguing for it, he operates as if the undistorted work level baseline is whatever work level would obtain under government-imposed laissez-faire capitalist institutions that were also somehow self-enforcing in ways that don't require taxes to operate. That is the golden work hour baseline for reasons nobody has ever explained to me other than hegemonic ideological blinkering.

Needless to say, this is a nonsense baseline against which to measure distortion. But more generally, the game of talking about "work distortions" is always nonsense. Outside of my no-government baseline, there is no non-distorted baseline level of work. All work levels are constructs of government-imposed economic institutions, no set of which is more natural or default or undistorted than another. If we are going to have a work debate, it should proceed by asking ourselves how much time we want to spend toiling our scarce lives away, not muttering incoherently about what distorts what.