John Danaher examines Andrew Levine’s argument that the right not to work “is entailed by the fundamental principles of liberal egalitarianism.”
Voltaire once said that “work saves a man from three great evils: boredom, vice and need.” Many people endorse this sentiment. Indeed, the ability to seek and secure paid employment is often viewed as an essential part of a well-lived life. Those who do not work are reminded of the fact. They are said to be missing out on a valuable and fulfilling human experience. The sentiment is so pervasive that some of the foundational documents of international human rights law — including the UN Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR Art. 23) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR Art. 6) — recognise and enshrine the “right to work”.
But what about the right not to work? Although the UDHR and ICESCR both recognise the right to rest and leisure, they do so clearly in the context of a concern about overwork. In other words, they recognise the right to work under fair and reasonable conditions. They do not take the more radical step of recognising a right to opt out of work completely, nor to have that right protected by the state. But maybe they should? Maybe the right not to work is something that a just and humane society should recognise?
That, at any rate, is the argument developed by Andrew Levine in his article “Fairness to Idleness: Is there a right not to work?”. In this post, I want to take a look at that argument. In broad outline, Levine defends the claim that a right not to work is entailed by the fundamental principles of liberal egalitarianism (of a roughly Rawlsian type). He does so, not because he himself endorses liberal egalitarianism, but because he wishes to highlight the more radical implications of that view.
I think Levine’s argument is intriguing. I also think that if we are entering an age of increasing automation and technological unemployment — i.e. a world in which economically productive activity will be taken over by machines — its alleged impracticalities will become less and less of an issue. Consequently, it is something we should start to take more seriously. I’ll break my discussion down into two main sections. First, I’ll sketch Levine’s argument for the right not to work. Second, I’ll consider his response to the major criticisms of that argument.
1. Levine’s Argument for a Right not to Work
One of the central precepts of liberal egalitarianism (as Levine understands it) is the principle of neutrality. According to this principle, the state should be neutral with respect to its citizens’ conception of the good. That is to say, the state should not promote any particular conception of what the good life consists in. Instead, it should work to tolerate and facilitate people in their pursuit of different conceptions of the good. Obviously, it can only do this to a certain extent. If a person’s conception of the good consists in the belief that, say, all black people should be killed, then that can neither be facilitated nor tolerated. Or if a person’s conception of the good involves unreasonable demands on resources, such that it would deprive many others of their conception of the good, then it may not be permissible or possible to facilitate it. But assuming that a person’s conception of the good does not unjustly or unfairly deprive anyone else of their conception of the good, it should be tolerated, and if possible, facilitated.