Paternalism vs liberalism

The Australia Institute‘s proposal in Something for Nothing to regulate working hours according to their version of a balanced good life highlights some differences between paternalism and liberalism.

Paternalists are confident that they know what way of living is best for each individual. Having found a few studies identifying harmful health or social effects of long hours at work, authors Richard Denniss and Josh Fear assume that all over-work must be bad and therefore should be regulated.

Liberals, by contrast, typically believe that there are many different ways of living a good life. Liberals are less likely to miss the other meanings and goals of work, and more likely to tolerate people making their own choices about life priorities. If somebody thinks that their job is more rewarding that going home at 5pm, there is no reason for the state to second-guess that judgment.

Paternalists tend to doubt the capacity of people to improve their own lives. As with much left-wing social science, Something for Nothing reflects an implicit assumption that people are hapless victims of forces beyond their control, who can only be protected by the state. Denniss and Fear’s theories of unpaid overtime – worker-employer power balances, social pressure from colleagues, and work addiction – suppose these pressures or personal pathology.

Liberals by contrast see individuals – with exceptions such as children, those with very low intelligence or the mentally ill – as not only capable of making their own decisions about a good life, but also capable of acting on those decisions. Long hours jobs are not the only jobs available, and so we should assume that people can over the medium term sort out their own work-life balance rather than that the state should step in.

The liberal view is more consistent with the empirical evidence. The latest HILDA statistical report shows that even over a one year period hours change a lot. Of those working 65+ hours a week in 2005, nearly half worked less in 2006. Of those working 55-64 hours a week in 2005, 42% worked less in 2006. And obviously many people have the option of changing jobs. In the HILDA sample, only 30% of men and 20% of women were continuously employed in the same job from 2001 to 2006.

There are hard cases for liberals – highly-addictive drugs for example. But working hours are not a hard case. The highly diverse reasons people have for working long hours mean that the complex trade-offs involved are best resolved at an individual level.

22 Responses to “Paternalism vs liberalism

  • 1
    PaulL
    November 24th, 2009 11:50

    I agree with your thesis.

    I have a little concern with the statement that “of those working 65+ hours a week in 2005, nearly half worked less in 2006.” If we assumed a normal curve, then in the absence of any other information, half would work less, half would work more?

    I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but on the face of it your statement tells us little?

  • 2
    Andrew Norton
    November 24th, 2009 12:07

    Paul -I’m not sure that I understand your point. The same people are asked about their usual weekly hours in successive years. It’s not a random sample. As year-to-year job stability is fairly high a reasonable assumption would be that the most common response would be no or little change, which is in fact the case. However I also assume that long hours often have temporary aspects, due to changing work patterns within firms or movements between firms – that contrary to the paternalist assumption things can change without government. That is also supported by this data, since large numbers of people do change how many hours they work.

  • 3
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 12:58

    “Liberals by contrast see individuals … as not only capable of making their own decisions about a good life, but also capable of acting on those decisions.”
    .
    And when it comes to acting, is the power balance in the negotiation equal? Of course it isn’t.
    .
    It isn’t always simple to move to another job,and jobs offer many advantages and disadvantages – you might enjoy the flexibility of hours you need (do I dare say, for ‘family reasons’?) so are prepared to work unpaid overtime that is asked of you. Is that a fair equation?

  • 4
    caf
    November 24th, 2009 13:01

    Do liberals have the same concern for paternalism in the “NT Intervention”?

  • 5
    melaleuca
    November 24th, 2009 13:19

    Andrew says:

    “There are hard cases for liberals – highly-addictive drugs for example. But working hours are not a hard case. The highly diverse reasons people have for working long hours mean that the complex trade-offs involved are best resolved at an individual level.”

    Trying to regulate working hours may end up producing more “bads” than “goods” but this statement is absurd. In some workplaces employees are expected to do unpaid overtime. A worker may not wish to do unpaid overtime but the fear of ostracism, loss of promotion prospects or dismissal compels them to do so. An employee in such a situation with limited opportunities for employment elsewhere is effectively trapped. To suggest such a situation is best viewed as a voluntary choice made at an individual level obscures the reality.

    “The liberal view is more consistent with the empirical evidence. ”

    This statement is also absurd in light of the stats you provide. What is more significant is finding out how many people feel pressured to work longer hours than they would like, particularly unpaid hours.

  • 6
    Andrew Norton
    November 24th, 2009 13:23

    Caf – A good and tough question, that would need to be assessed by each paternalist measure. Quarantining welfare payments is in my view in-principle ok, though we always need to balance the competence of individuals against the competence of the state. Something that is ok in principle may not work very well in practice.

  • 7
    M
    November 24th, 2009 14:52

    “A worker may not wish to do unpaid overtime but the fear of ostracism, loss of promotion prospects or dismissal compels them to do so.”

    Its interesting that we might consider doing the “regularulation” hours would mean we should still be in line for promotion prospects. I’m not sure if that is a reasonable assumption or not. Ultimately your chance of promotion is not just down to whether you are worthy but whether you are worthier than the other 6 guys your competing with.

  • 8
    PaulL
    November 24th, 2009 15:02

    Andrew – I understand they are the same people. Without more detail on the structure of the survey it just looks a bit like the shock discovery that 50% of people have below average intelligence.

    If what you’re saying is that the survey banded people, and the top band was “65+ hours per week”, and that the next year, half the people had moved out of that top band, then that is more relevant. Because we’re then saying that for half the people, they no longer work 65+ hours, and for the other half, they’re still working 65+. That is to say, we aren’t saying half increased / half decreased, but saying half decreased / half stayed the same.

    I’m interested in why people assume that those doing overtime and/or unpaid overtime, are necessarily those who have little choice in the matter. In my experience, those doing large amounts of unpaid overtime are typically salaried, and in professional occupations. They’re making a choice to even work in that occupation – they could go work in a supermarket or something instead. The reality is that they value the money more than they value their personal time, else they would change their tradeoff.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    November 24th, 2009 15:20

    Paul – Yes, your second paragraph describes the finding.

  • 10
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 16:00

    “They’re making a choice to even work in that occupation – they could go work in a supermarket or something instead”
    .
    What would be the point in changing jobs if the system allows people to be exploited everywhere?
    .
    “In my experience, those doing large amounts of unpaid overtime are typically salaried, and in professional occupations.”
    .
    And in the public service you can have some ‘cuts’ and lose a few FTEs, but the amount of work will remain the same. The CEO won’t tell the Minister “We’ll have to close 1 day per week”. (Well, the W.A. Art Gallery did in fact recently start closing one day per week – but that isn’t common).

  • 11
    PaulL
    November 24th, 2009 16:30

    Russell, you won’t be getting a lot of support from me with the contention that the public sector are overworked. I work in the public sector, and I see how much actual work gets done.

  • 12
    Michael "Lorenzo" Warby
    November 24th, 2009 17:04

    And when it comes to acting, is the power balance in the negotiation equal? Of course it isn’t.
    How equal is the power balance if raising the costs and risks of employing someone pushes people below the point when it is profitable to hire them?
    The notion that regulation naturally increases the power of all workers is not very sensible.

    Far more people leave jobs voluntarily than are fired. That says a lot about power balances methinks.

  • 13
    Son of the Ratpack
    November 24th, 2009 17:36

    I tend to agree that individuals are generally the best judges of how hard they should work. But on the other hand, when France mandated maximum working hours a few years ago, there were all sorts of predictions about how this would ruin the French economy which haven’t come to pass. In fact the French economy is handling the GFC better than most. Are there Frenchmen unhappy that they aren’t allowed to work longer hours? Probably, but it’s not the biggest infringement of liberty as these things go.

    And there is no doubt that some people do work too hard for their own good. The term workaholic has been around for a lot longer than contemporary concerns about long hours. It leads to poor health, relationship breakups etc. You might retort that that it is their choice, and people should be free to make dumb choices, but objectively it is often if not mostly a dumb choice. As the old saying goes, nobody on their death bed wished they’d spent more time at the office.

  • 14
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 17:52

    “I work in the public sector, and I see how much actual work gets done.”
    .
    We’re not talking about actual work – for any output from the public service there is a huge amount of emotional work – can I guess a ratio of 10:1. Just because you have fewer FTE’s doesn’t mean there will be fewer meetings or less ‘planning’ ….

  • 15
    PaulL
    November 24th, 2009 19:04

    1. They could work less hours and get the same output if they tried
    2. Most of them work their 7:24 and then go home.

    There are exceptions to every rule, but I’d find it hard to believe there is any systematic level of overwork in the public sector.

  • 16
    Andrew Norton
    November 24th, 2009 19:26

    Somewhat counter-intuitively, HILDA finds that long hours are not related to relationship breakdown. Working 35-49 hours a week (men) seems to be optimal for relationship stability, but <35 hours a week workers are more likely to break up than 50+ hours.

    I suspect the reason is that the people who work long hours are generally of above-average competence and have above-average incomes, which protect against relationship instability.

    That said, annual rates of relationship breakdown are fairly low across all groups (<4%).

  • 17
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 19:32

    Agree. From my experience, at the operational level departments rely on a few dedicated souls who will put in whatever it takes to get a good result. I think those people are getting increasingly ‘overworked’ in a chaotic, and badly managed public sector.
    Other overworked public servants are those near the top who are available and molested anytime, seven says a week, because the DG or minister needs them. And those at the bottom, left to face the public without the resources to actually help/satisfy the public.

  • 18
    conrad
    November 24th, 2009 20:48

    “Other overworked public servants are those near the top who are available and molested anytime, seven says a week, because the DG or minister needs them.”
    .
    Since those guys get paid very reasonably, I don’t have any particular sympathy for them. Make sure you become obsessed with something you enjoy doing. It’s the guys at the bottom who arn’t obsessed and have to do the drudge work that I have more sympathy for.

  • 19
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 22:08

    Conrad – they do get paid well, but, and in relation to this topic, it doesn’t mean people should be expected to make their whole life = work.

    It isn’t reasonable or healthy that people have their family/social lives regularly interrupted on Sunday afternoons or whenever because a response for the Minister has to be done immediately.

    There may be a few people who are willing to dedicate their whole lives to their job, but would you want to restrict your staff to people who could meet that peculiar selection criteria?

  • 20
    Russell
    November 24th, 2009 22:09

    criterion.

  • 21
    PaulL
    November 25th, 2009 06:14

    Russell, plenty of organisations do. And it appears that there are a lot of people who are quite willing to have their lives interrupted. The laws of supply and demand tell us that if nobody would do it, then they’d soon change their expectations.

    I’m with conrad here. People who get paid a hundred grand or more a year, but work long hours, don’t really deserve our sympathy nor regulation to protect them. They could easily take a job that didn’t have that requirement, which would pay less. Therefore they also clearly would rather have the money than the family life.

  • 22
    Winton Bates
    November 27th, 2009 15:52

    Having just read the report I can’t understand why the Australia Institute has published it. Some people mess up their lives by working too many hours. Some people mess up their lives by working too few hours. So, some people make mistakes!

    Are there no other areas of human behaviour where paternalists could not make a stonger case for intervention?