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.