Leisure as a consumer good
Leisure is a desirable good, as empirically observed from actual human behavior.
Leisure time, like any other resource that people enjoy, is subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility. As Ludwig von Mises points out, "the first unit of leisure satisfies a desire more urgently felt than the second one, the second one a more urgent desire than the third one, and so on." Suppose, for example, a person's favorite leisure activity is reading newspapers; it takes him one hour to read each newspaper; and he has three newspapers available to read in his leisure time. If he only has one hour of leisure time, he will read only his most favorite newspaper. If he has two hours of leisure time available, he will read both his first- and second-favorite newspapers. And if he has three hours of leisure time, he will read all three newspapers. Further additions of leisure time will result in him engaging in activities that he enjoys less and less.
World without leisure
We can conceive of a world in which leisure is not desired and labor is merely a useful scarce factor to be economized. In such a world, the total supply of available labor would be equal to the total quantity of labor that men would be capable of expending. Everyone would be eager to work to the maximum of capacity, since increased work would lead to increased production of desired consumers’ goods. All time not required for maintaining and preserving the capacity to work would be spent in labor. Such a situation could conceivably exist, and an economic analysis could be worked out on that basis. We know from empirical observation, however, that such a situation is very rare for human action. For almost all actors, leisure is a consumers’ good, to be weighed in the balance against the prospect of acquiring other consumers’ goods, including possible satisfaction from the effort itself.
Leisure vs. Labor
Labor always involves the forgoing of leisure. The more a man labors, the less leisure he can enjoy. Increased labor therefore reduces the available supply of leisure and the utility that it affords.
In considering an expenditure of his labor, man not only takes into account which are the most valuable ends it can serve (as he does with all other factors), these ends possibly including the satisfaction derived from productive labor itself, but he also weighs the prospect of abstaining from the expenditure of labor in order to obtain the consumers’ good, leisure.
Leisure is activity that provides immediate gratification. Its opposite is labor, activity that, while it commonly produces the joy of labor, still has enough disutility (often due to the tedium of labor) that people would not engage in it unless they could receive mediate gratification from it.
Disutility of leisure
Idleness itself can have disutility; as Ludwig von Mises points out, "Man feels the impulse to activity. Even if need did not drive him to work he would not always be content to roll in the grass and bask in the sun. Even young animals and children whose nourishment is provided by their parents kick their limbs, dance, jump and run so as to exercise powers yet unclaimed by labour. To be stirring is a physical and mental need. Thus, in general, purposeful labour gives satisfaction. Yet only up to a certain point; beyond this it is only toil." ... "When labour commences it is found disagreeable. After the first difficulties have been overcome and body and mind are better adapted, then the disagreeableness declines."
Why is labour continued when the disutility which its continuance occasions exceeds the direct satisfaction deriving from it? Because something else beside direct labour satisfaction comes into account, namely the satisfaction afforded by the product of the labour; we call this indirect labour satisfaction. Labour will be continued so long as the dissatisfaction which it arouses is counterbalanced by the pleasure derived from its product. Labour will only be discontinued at the point at which its continuation would give rise to more disutility than utility.
Other effects of leisure
Some authors note that large amounts of leisure time at one's disposal can lead to an increased tendency to indulge in mind-altering chemicals. As a person's wage-earning potential rises, opportunity costs of using drugs increase, and there is a tendency to cut back on drug use. Vedran Vuk explains:
- ...a rock star plays a two-hour show every few days, maybe accompanied with a press interview here or there. In between, the bands travel with little responsibility or concern. This breeds an environment prone for drug use. As the old saying goes, "idle hands are the devil's workshop." Even when performing, sobriety is not always a prerequisite. In fact, the show might be a little better depending on the level of intoxication.
- If accountants worked for only two hours every few days at the same pay, one could guarantee a drastic jump in their drug and alcohol abuse. Most of us have 9-to-5 jobs and can't afford to do drugs because of our responsibilities. How many readers have the time to smoke crystal meth this weekend and stay awake for 36 hours? Close to none (except for college students). It is not an accident that college students, with plenty of time on their hands, have a reputation for heavy drinking and drug use. Students don't mysteriously mature from age 22 to 23 and stop drinking. They get jobs, which increases their time cost of drugs and alcohol and leads to lower usage.
- Murray N. Rothbard. Chapter 1—Fundamentals of Human Action (continued) from Man, Economy and State. Referenced 2012-08-06.
- Ludwig von Mises. "3. Human Labor as a Means", from Human Action. Referenced 2012-08-06.
- von Mises, Ludwig. The Socialist Community Under Stationary Conditions
- Vuk, Vedran. What Motley Crue Can Teach Us About Drug Legalization. 14 August 2008.
- von Mises, Ludwig. The Creative Genius. Chapter 7, Section 3. Human Action. 1949.