Should We Have the Right Not to Work?

This is the logo used for egalitarian/ equality beliefs. Similar to the well known anarchy "A", a capital "E" inscribed in a circle is used in political imagery to show a belief in the equality of different types of people.

This is the logo used for egalitarian/ equality beliefs. Similar to the well known anarchy “A”, a capital “E” inscribed in a circle is used in political imagery to show a belief in the equality of different types of people.

John Danaher examines Andrew Levine’s argument that the right not to work “is entailed by the fundamental principles of liberal egalitarianism.”

via Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology:

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.

Continue reading.

  • Mr B

    I’ll opt out of work, when my landlord and supermarket stop charging.

    ‘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 …’

    “Bleep bleep.”

  • Oginikwe

    The right not to work directly correlates with the right to starve to death, even though correlation is not causation.

  • InfvoCuernos

    Enjoy what you do for a living, and you’ll never work a day in your life.

  • BuzzCoastin

    there’s a difference between work and right livelihood
    there’sa difference between working for money & woking for enjoyment
    there’s a difference between believing you have to work for a living
    and knowing you don’t

    Votaire puts that quote in the mouth of the farmer
    in the last chapter of Candide
    the farmer is being questioned about politics & world affairs
    he says he knows nothing of that sort of thing
    and he and his family focus on their gardens
    which saves them from the three great ills
    boredom, vice and need

  • Angel Gabriel

    There is a difference between wanting to work and being a wage slave. I dropped out of the rat race twenty years ago. I plant huge gardens, raise poultry and create art out of the gourds I grow. I sell the gourds and excess produce to pay for those things that require money. Most other things can be bartered for, I trade eggs for butter for example. If a local farmer gives me milk, I turn it into cheese and share the cheese with him. The thought that we “have” to work is a flat out lie that we have all been taught to believe. I am no mans slave! As for the rat race, even if you win, well, you’re still a rat.

    • Echar Lailoken

      I am inspired by what you are saying here. Can you please offer some pragmatic resources and/or words of advice for anyone wishing to make the change?

      Something else, rats are pretty awesome though. Well the ones you can get at the pet stores. Gutter rats, not so much.

      • BuzzCoastin


        • Echar Lailoken

          I need money first. I can do this, I’ve lived rough before. With the right resources a person can live with comforts and be off the grid. I like the comforts, it makes life more bearable. I just may jump one of these days.

          • BuzzCoastin

            if you’re open to it
            you’ll get pushed

            getting over the money illusion
            is usually lesson 1
            but it takes awhile before it really sinks in

          • Echar Lailoken

            It would be daft to start without resources. I can plan now and generate the resources though. I’ve been collecting reading material, and such. I loathe the idea of working for another corporation, but it may be worth it if this brings me to my goals.

            I require running water. Been there, gone without. I refuse to use laundromats. It’s beyond inconvenient and expensive. The elephant in the room, bio breaks. It’s doable, but nope. Showering in truck stops or laundromats won’t cut it either. I’d rather be somewhat away from all that noise.

          • Simon Valentine

            there’s comes a time that “i’ll support you” (a to b) becomes “i’ll support you” (b to a) “but quite simply you won’t move the fuck out of the way”

            pigeon holes and phine midas gold
            what is your money anyway
            time itself is growing old

          • Echar Lailoken


          • Simon Valentine

            phylactery upon the shelf
            what place was placed there by itself
            aether and withe of void
            tell me why always annoyed

          • Echar Lailoken

            That’s blood magic!

          • Simon Valentine

            hearty confection

          • Angel Gabriel

            I have both electricity and hot and cold running water. When I say off the grid, many people assume I live in a cave. Or I am forced to do without creature comforts like running water. I am fortunate enough to have a good spring fed well. I have a four bedroom cabin and all the comforts anyone can ask for. Except a television. I stopped watching it a long time ago and finally tossed it. It takes a while to get over the media and government brainwashing, but it can be done.

            I agree with BuzzCoastin, getting over the money illusion is the first step. Take one step at a time. A container garden can be started for just a few dollars. Wood mulch and horse manure can be gotten for free. Generators and solar panels can be purchased used and refurbished. Ask neighbors and friends for help. Be imaginative and creative, your mind is your best resource. Think outside the box! It took me twenty years to get to this point, it won’t happen overnight. Jump!

    • BuzzCoastin

      same same here
      gainfully unemployed since 97
      except before i turned to farming about a year ago
      I wandered around the whirled
      met people, got in adventures

      I traded my knowledge about permaculture
      for 8.5 acres in Hawaii

      • Angel Gabriel

        It’s nice being free isn’t it?

  • Guest

    Most people don’t work. They toil.

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Don’t all rights basically boil down to this? A guarantee of this sort would go a long way to mitigate all sorts of coercive strategies.

  • Simon Valentine

    honestly, so many jobs and ‘jobs’ involving farming people anyway (already)

    more people with less jobs and ‘jobs’ equals more people to farm
    its innately all circular anyway

    “you like to play games”
    “we like to evolve games”
    “these like to program”