Less Work

I previously wrote about the idea of a Basic Income for Australia [1], that post was mainly to show how it could be introduced with little real change. That is not because I don’t think that we need real changes, but because we should consider the various changes separately as much as possible.

In terms of how society works I think that we need to move from the current model where most people are expected to work most of the time and the people who don’t work are treated badly to encourage them to work for low wages. I think that we should aim as a society to have less time spent doing paid work which means more people working part time (maybe 6 months a year, 3 or 4 days a week, or other ways of doing less than 40 hours a week * ~45 weeks) and more people who aren’t doing paid work.

The idea of 100% employment is the cause of many jokes about the Soviet Union. I don’t know how much truth is behind the jokes about needless work being done to fulfill Soviet plans, but regardless of the accuracy I think we should take such things as an idea of what not to do in our society. The Broken Window Fallacy is an example of the Soviet production problem in supposedly capitalist societies.

Here are some of my ideas for decreasing the amount of needless work without decreasing anyone’s quality of life – in fact most of these make things better for most people.

The War on Drugs

The easiest way to reduce needless employees is to end the “war on drugs”. During the course of the “war” the drug use has steadily increased and the amount of law enforcement energy devoted to it has also increased. Some estimates claim that 50% of law enforcement is devoted to it. Also some of the hospital budget is related to drug use.

I think that we should allow adults to consume any “drug” that they wish (not just tobacco, alcohol, caffeine, and other popular drugs) and apply the same laws regarding product quality to all of them. That will reduce the violence related to drugs, reduce the health impact (it’s usually poor quality control that causes medical problems), and allow law enforcement to concentrate on crimes that hurt other people.

Treating drug addiction as a medical problem has been shown to be the most effective way of reducing drug use, reducing violent crime, and reducing the health impact of drug use.

Other Crime Issues

Gary Slutkin’s TED talk about treating violence as a contagious disease has some interesting ideas for reducing violence in the community [2]. Implementing those ideas on a wide scale seems to have the potential for reducing law enforcement and medical work.

Generally I think we should aim to have as few laws as possible. Whenever adults want to do things that don’t hurt other people they should be permitted to do so. There should also be an aim for laws to be consistent and easy to understand. Ideally there would be a single database with all laws in some form of hypertext (maybe some type of Wiki) so that any citizen can discover all implications of the laws that affect them.


More money should be spent on preventing people getting sick. One problem we have in recent times is silly people refusing to get their children vaccinated because they take medical advice from a playboy model instead of doctors. I think that as a society we need to do more to protect children from stupid things that their parents do and that reducing the amount of medical work is the least of the reasons for doing so.

Another problem is the quality of food. The big supermarket chains are pushing prices down which reduces food quality. The excessive use of anti-biotics is a serious threat to world health that is driven by the low price of meat.


Rodney Brooks gave an interesting TED talk about robotics [2]. He showed how robots can be programmed/trained and talked about the factory workers who want their children to do anything other than factory work. Work that can be done by robots should be done by robots so that people can do better things.


One problem that we have in Australia is rent-seeking companies being permitted to establish toll roads. To make such toll roads profitable (which is guaranteed by corrupt politicians) they close roads that might be used to bypass the toll roads. This creates needless traffic congestion (wasted work time driving). Also running toll roads involves employing people to collect the tolls and take legal action against people who don’t pay. I believe that toll roads shouldn’t exist, this will reduce the number of needless workers and make everything more efficient. Also as a matter of principle I believe that the government should own and control every monopoly in the country.

Currently in Australia most adults own cars, this involves a lot of work in car maintenance. Even when not being used a car needs to be maintained for safety. When people drive to work instead of using public transport their travel time counts as work. While time spent on a train, tram, or bus isn’t leisure time it’s a lesser degree of work than driving a car. You can read a book, play phone games, or do other recreational activities when on public transport.

Car sharing companies are taking off in urban areas, this allows some people to avoid owning a car and some families to own fewer cars. We also need more government investment in public transport including more routes, greater passenger capacity, and more service late at night.

We also need to encourage companies not to have employees working from 9 to 5 to reduce the peak demand for public transport. A short term tax incentive would do some good in this regard, if companies were to encourage their employees to work different hours for a year then it might change the norms for work enough to permanently break the 9-5 concept.

I believe that all land-based mass public transport (buses, trams, and trains) should be free. That would remove the need to pay people to collect fares and fine people who don’t have tickets, and also remove the work time involved in buying tickets. Not requiring tickets would also decrease the time needed to get on and off public transport which would improve the speed of public transport and reduce disruption to traffic. One simulation of traffic in New York City showed that collecting fares on buses slowed down traffic enough to impose costs on all workers that were greater than the fares collected – so it would be cheaper overall for people in NYC to have free buses paid by the government. I don’t think that Melbourne has congestion similar to NYC and even Sydney might not have the same economic issues. But I still think that we should have free transport for the convenience of everyone.

Google has been doing some interesting research into cars that are driven by computer, their prototypes have been shown to work well in practice but have not been approved for real use. Trains and trams are easier to drive because there is no steering so it seems that they would be good options for the first implementation of computer driven public transport. Robot trams would allow more regular service late at night and thus make the network more useful.

Stop Buying Rubbish

A significant waste of resources is the commercial events of Christmas, Valentine’s day, and Easter. A lot of marketing money is spent to encourage people to buy rubbish for other people in celebration of such events. I think that Christmas presents for children are a good thing and that even the trivial things (crackers and party hats) are OK, but adults don’t need it. Valentine’s day is OK for people who are in relationships, but coercing single people to rush to find someone so that they aren’t single on that day is bad for everyone. Most Easter and Valentine’s chocolate is rubbish, cheap and nasty chocolate in fancy wrappings. Buy a small quantity of good chocolate instead of a large quantity of rubbish.

There’s a big market for knick-nacks for adults outside of those holidays too. Stands at trade shows usually give away junk to delegates, some of it has enough value to be taken home but really it’s mostly rubbish. If you can’t sell your stuff without giving away freebies then giving away plastic toys or cheap chocolate isn’t going to make it sell.

Any Other Ideas?

Does anyone have other ideas about how to reduce the amount of work required to sustain our society? Suggestions for improvements that suit other countries are welcome too, while I’m mostly thinking about Australia while writing this I’m interested in ways of making things better all around the world.

3 comments to Less Work

  • anxiousmac

    While there are undoubtedly quality control problems with illegal drugs, as an intensive care doctor I have seen my share of problems caused by idiosyncratic reactions to things like MDMA and unexpected changes in user tolerance to opiates. I’m not saying your proposed approach is definitely wrong, but I think we could be surprised at the ongoing rate of death and serious harm.

  • etbe

    I’m sure that you have also seen your share of problems caused by entirely expected reactions to alcohol. Not to mention the fact that someone who takes opiates in a controlled environment when there is no legal obstacle to getting medical attention is much more likely to survive any unexpected reactions.

    When heroin is legal there will be no obstacle to making it easy to get drugs to counter an overdose.

  • One simple thing to reduce over all work that I think you’ve missed is remote work (aka telecommuting).

    Remote work is starting to catch on around the world and it’s great, it means you can cut masses out of individuals commute and if enough people do it, masses off of the road and public transport networks at peak times, if done properly there’s minimal (if any) loss in social interaction either.

    For this to work in Australia we need a few things:
    * actual internet (i.e. bring back the NBN or get wireless internet that works everywhere even with congestion, something like might work)
    * more shared office spaces (I’ve lucked out moving 2 hours out of Melbourne and getting cheap shared office space when I ostensibly work in Melbourne, but it’s rare outside of the big CBDs in Australia)
    * encourage companies to be comfortable with remote work (maybe we just need to sit down and bash everyone over the head until they’ve read :) )

    – Dave