Smugglers of Meaning and Time


Back in April, I made some notes related to a post on Uprise RI, but my time being scarce, the weeks have slipped by.  Here’s the section I highlighted in my notes:

“To live a free life, it is not enough that we have the right to freedom,” writes [Yale professor] Martin Hägglund. “We must have access to the material resources as well as the forms of education that allow us to pursue our freedom and to “own” the question of what to do with our time. What belongs to each of us – what is irreducibly our own – is not property or goods but the time of our lives.”

We are not infinite beings. We are finite, and that finitude makes our brief time the most precious thing we have. It is the essence of our freedom.

“An emancipated life is not a life that is free from work, but a life in which we pursue work on the basis of our own commitments,” writes Hägglund. “Even our socially necessary labor can be an expression of our freedom if it is shared for the sake of the common good.”

Uprise RI editor Steve Ahlquist characterizes Hägglund’s work as an exploration of “secular faith,” which he characterizes by finding value in things that are finite, rather than eternal. “Even though it is painful and difficult to be finite, that is also the condition for anything mattering, anything to be at stake, anything being valuable and worth caring about,” he said at the Harvard Book Store event that Ahlquist was covering.

But Hägglund is plainly wrong to insist that brevity is the source of meaning and, therefore, that time is the most precious thing we have.  Time is like a zinc coin.  It’s utterly useless and valueless if it cannot be used for something.  A limited amount of time, like a limited amount of currency, makes it more important to spend it on things that provide meaning, but it is not the meaning itself.  People who share the economic worldview of Ahlquist and (I infer) Hägglund can see this very easily when it comes to money.  The miser who collects money simply to have it is a justifiably maligned caricature, as would be a miser who collects time — a person who refuses to do things for others for no better reason than that he wants full ownership of his time.

Hägglund illustrates this very principle when he makes the paradoxical statement that “socially necessary labor” (read, “slavery”) is “an expression of freedom” when it’s done for “the common good.”  In his own terms, he’s saying the common good is what gives meaning.  Its slaves are just trading in their time tickets (so to speak) to produce that valuable thing.  Whoever defines the “common good,” therefore, gets to tell everybody what they must find meaning in, and they are supposed to feel good about spending time on it because… well, I guess that’s where the faith part comes in.

We would be remiss if we didn’t pause to appreciate a related consequence of Hägglund’s argument: that we must have a right to things that other people produce.  The “common good,” in this view, is the production of sufficient resources to allow everybody to “‘own’ the question of what to do with our time.”

In other words, we have a right to material goods produced by others in order to procure the freedom to pursue our own interests, but they — those other people — can feel good about their labor because they’re doing it for the “common good,” which is to say, for our good.

One wonders, with such thinkers, if they’ve ever had jobs that hurt the body and take effort to see as meaningful, beyond the paycheck.  They appear to be privileged people doing a privileged kind of work that many others would be hard-pressed to acknowledge as “labor.”  A question that must quickly be answered, therefore, is whether their writing is the labor that they do for the “common good” or the thing that they’re doing beyond their “socially necessary labor.”  In their ideal world, would the Hägglunds and Ahlquists spend eight hours digging ditches and then go to their writing as their fellow ditch-diggers choose to watch television or drink the night away?

One needn’t be presumptuous to predict that the trick of the game is that, at bottom, this new social order would prove to be mere substitution.  The socialist suggests that the privileged people in our current, capitalist system waste time on superficial pleasures or false ideas of religious meaning, but they, the good socialists, will use that time better if they are the privileged ones, because everything they want to do is for the “common good.”

Forgive me if I seem to be circling as I attempt to articulate how this game appears to me, but it is (after all) circular thinking.  Our current system is built upon the principle of individual rights and an economic mandate to find ways to provide things for others that they consider to be valuable.  Those who are not able or willing to produce sufficient value (which doesn’t turn out to be many, unless they are refusing to work or are permitted not to by the government) suffer by their inability to finance their interests.  Meanwhile, even those who succeed by providing what others consider to be valuable aren’t doing it for the “common good,” but in pursuit of their own sources of meaning, their own selfish interests, if you like.

The Hägglunds are saying that society should give you enough money to do whatever superficial thing you want to do with your time (like a temporal consumerism), but the cost is that you must consent to the “common good” as your source of meaning, which they define and which benefits their own talents.  Even if a laborer saw no measurable improvement in his status or quality of life in the switch from capitalism to socialism, still his lot would improve (the story goes) because the fruits of his labor contribute to the “common good” rather than somebody else’s selfish interests.

It is assumed that the decision makers are trying to do what is best for us rather than for them and becomes a matter of utmost importance, therefore, whether those whose “socially necessary labor” is less arduous would be willing to trade if it turned out that some laborer is actually better at it.  How would the laborer even prove that to be the case?  Would a panel of people who are peers of the person to be demoted sit in judgment of the work product?

One suspects that it wouldn’t take long for this experiment to produce a familiar conclusion:  Humanity finds meaning in competition and personal improvement, and the most just system is the one in which individuals looking to purchase something of value get to choose the seller whom they deem to be best.  Moreover, in such a system (which is tautologically in keeping with human nature), redistributing material resources begins to look entirely unjust if it takes from people who’ve worked and gives to other people who think their time is best spent wasted.

  • ShannonEntropy

    Like a SCOTUS Justice I concur in part and dissent in part with Justin’s opinion

    ITA with your conclusion that…

    … redistributing material resources begins to look entirely unjust if it takes from people who’ve worked and gives to other people who think their time is best spent wasted.

    However I dissent from you in disagreeing with Hägglund’s opinion that:

    We are not infinite beings. We are finite, and that finitude makes our brief time the most precious thing we have. It is the essence of our freedom.

    There is an ancient saying: TIME IS MONEY

    In fact that saying has it exactly bass-ackwards.
    The Trvth is: MONEY IS TIME

    If you have enough money you donut need to waste what precious little time we all have on this planet working in some soul-sucking meaningless corporate or hard-labor job 50 weeks a year that most of us have to submit to in order get enough money to pay for basic living expenses and maybe a rare luxury like dinner out or a stay-cation here and there

    Most readers here may not realize this until they retire. But now that I have been retired eight yrs the only thing I would go back and change about my life is I would have tried to retire twenty or even thirty yrs sooner. Those are decades of youth I spent with my nose to the proverbial grindstone that I can never get back

    And BTW… when you retire try to structure your income so you donut have to pay income taxes. Starve the beast that is trying to extract your resources to give them to the un-productive. Even more than ‘Living Well’ … that truly is the Best Revenge

    • Makaha Ken

      Rhode Island is ranked as one of the top 10 states in nation not to retire to as state and municipal governments throw retirees and seniors under the bus with taxes.

      My adopted retirement state Hawaii not Florida exempts my social security and retirement income from state income tax (leaxing only federal income tax), does not property tax vehicles and boats, sales tax is 4% and my city property tax is only $300 per year but I could move and lower it to $150 per year but I’m likening a gated/guarded private community, house, luxury ammenities, beach, water and sunset plus mountain waterfall views, neighborhood and two golf courses where I am currently living because tourists have not discoved it.

      • ShannonEntropy

        Wa’s da haps, 96792 ??

        For a brief while Mrs Entropy & I owned a home in the Hillcrest section of Kailua, Oahu. At the time the place wasn’t even on tourist maps of the island; we only discovered it cuz it was only place on Oahu that rented Hobie Cats®. And you prolly know that “Dr Beach” just named Kailua Beach Park as the best beach in America

        My HI “claim to fame” is I won a newspaper contest put on by the Bishop Museum back ~ ’92 to name the astronomical phenomenon which didn’t then have a name but which is now thanks to me is called “Lahaina Noon” [ ‘Lahaina’ means “cruel Sun” in Polynesian ]

        If we ever get out there again we’ll have to get together and jus’ hang loose !!

        • Makaha Ken

          Currently real estate prices in Kailua are averaging $775,000 to $20 million. You remember the old saying; “Buy for $20,000 and sell for $1 million in Hawaii.”

          • ShannonEntropy

            If I told you what we bought that Kailua house for and then what we sold it for a year later you would laugh at my obvious lying exaggeration

            But it would be THE TRVTH …