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NDPR Discussion Forum on Julie Rose’s “Free Time”

Welcome to our discussion thread on Julie Rose’s Free Time, recently reviewed by Eric Rakowski for NDPR. We have invited Julie and Eric to provide any comments they’d like on either the book or the review, and we hope other readers of PEA Soup will chime in with their thoughts on either the book or the review as well.

From the Princeton University Press blurb: “Recent debates about inequality have focused almost exclusively on the distribution of wealth and disparities in income, but little notice has been paid to the distribution of free time. Free time is commonly assumed to be a matter of personal preference, a good that one chooses to have more or less of. Even if there is unequal access to free time, the cause and solution are presumed to lie with the resources of income and wealth. In Free Time, Julie Rose argues that these views are fundamentally mistaken. First, Rose contends that free time is a resource, like money, that one needs in order to pursue chosen ends. Further, realizing a just distribution of income and wealth is not sufficient to ensure a fair distribution of free time. Because of this, anyone concerned with distributive justice must attend to the distribution of free time.

“On the basis of widely held liberal principles, Rose explains why citizens are entitled to free time—time not committed to meeting life’s necessities and instead available for chosen pursuits. The novel argument that the just society must guarantee all citizens their fair share of free time provides principled grounds to address critical policy choices, including work hours regulations, Sunday closing laws, public support for caregiving, and the pursuit of economic growth.”


From Rakowski’s NDPR Review: “Rose argues forcefully that free time ought to be regarded as a separate and vital resource or opportunity, alongside money and other goods that figure prominently in theories of justice, because it is “an all-purpose means in precisely the same way as income and wealth.” (67) She further attempts, less persuasively in my view, to draw out the implications of assigning independent importance to the distribution of free time in regulating work hours or assisting providers of dependent care.”

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3 Responses to NDPR Discussion Forum on Julie Rose’s “Free Time”


    Let me begin by saying thank you to Eric Rakowski for his careful and thoughtful review of Free Time in NDPR, and to David Shoemaker and PEA Soup for hosting this forum. I’m grateful to have the opportunity here to discuss the book and some of the points raised in the review.

    The book’s central claim is that all citizens are entitled, as a matter of justice, to fair shares of free time. This core argument has two components. First, free time is valuable to citizens in the same way that money is: it is a resource that citizens generally require to pursue their conceptions of the good, whatever those may be. Citizens must have time that is not committed to meeting the necessities of life—time that is not devoted to necessary paid work, household labor, or personal care to meet their own, or their dependents’, basic needs—so they can have time to devote to any other pursuit they might choose.

    Second, citizens are entitled to free time on the basis of the effective freedoms principle, a foundational tenet of liberal egalitarian theories of justice, which holds that citizens have legitimate claims to a fair share of the resources that are generally required to exercise their formal liberties and opportunities. In the same way as citizens generally require the resources of income and wealth to exercise their freedoms, so too do they generally require the resource of free time. To exercise one’s right to vote, for instance, one must have not only the means to get to the polls, but also the free time to do so. To make effective use of their liberties, citizens must have time that is not committed to meeting the necessities of life, time that they can predictably use for their own ends, and time that they can share with other citizens (p. 4).

    The review raises three points that I’ll focus on here—related to how citizens’ claims to free time might be realized, how to treat caregiving and other choices for which individuals might be held responsible, and whether the argument contains a disapproval of striving—in part because addressing them should help to make the aims of the book clear.

    First, Rakowski writes that, “Running throughout is a hankering for an idealized middle-class life in 1950s America shorn of gender and racial inequalities, with safe day jobs for all who want them and Sundays off for nearly everybody.” While citizens’ claims to free time might be realized in this way, the book argues for an entitlement to free time that is realizable across circumstances, in both present and future economic and social conditions.

    To take the question of Sundays off as illustrative, the argument holds that, in order to have effective freedom of association in particular, one must have access to a sufficient amount of free time that is shared with one’s current and potential associates. There are multiple ways to realize this claim to shared free time, including guaranteeing citizens vast amounts of free time, guaranteeing employees work hours flexibility, and instituting a common period of free time. Even the third solution, a common period of free time, could be realized in different ways: it could be on Sunday, or Wednesday, and it need not be any particular day, nor on a single day of the week. Though I argue that, if properly justified and instituted, a right not to work on Sundays would realize citizens’ claims to shared free time and would be consistent with standard liberal egalitarian principles, the book is also clear that how best to provide for shared free time is unavoidably dependent on the relevant circumstances, and that some other institutional solution may do so more reliably or with less cost to other appropriately weighted values (pp. 98-101, 110-11).

    In this way, citizens’ claims to shared free time could be realized in a variety of ways, from the recently familiar, as with the right to Sundays off, to the distant past, as with frequent holidays, to an imagined future, as with guaranteed discretion over work hours. How best to realize citizens’ claims to free time will vary with social circumstances, as well as other aspects of accounts of the just society. The book’s aim is to argue, more fundamentally, that citizens do have legitimate claims to free time, and that these claims ought to be realized in the arrangement of our social institutions.

    To this point, it is also worth noting that recognizing citizens’ claims to free time can help to guide our response to structural changes occurring in the economy and the workplace as a result of current technological developments. For instance, as technology increasingly allows us to be connected to work all the time, can we push back and maintain some time that is “our own”? Further, as automation decreases the amount of human labor that is required to achieve the same economic ends, should we claim these productivity gains as more free time, and how should that newfound time be distributed across society? The book’s central claim provides principled grounds to help answer these increasingly important questions.

    Second, Rakowski raises a series of questions about whether, and to what extent, caregiving ought to qualify as necessary time, or as a voluntary use of one’s free time. I cannot here address each of these questions, but a more general point may be useful in response. The question of how to treat caregiving, specifically for one’s own procreative children, is only one aspect—albeit a particularly important one—of the larger question of how to treat choices for which one might be held responsible.

    To take an example, if one chooses to be a low-paid gardener who must work long hours when one is qualified to be a high-paid doctor who could work short hours, should one’s free time be assessed with respect to the occupation one has chosen, or the occupation one could have chosen? Similar questions arise with respect to choices that, for instance, affect how much time one must spend commuting, how much time one must spend maintaining one’s home, and how much wealth one accumulates and thus how long one must work. Different liberal egalitarian theories of justice take different positions on the extent to which citizens’ distributive claims ought to be sensitive to their choices. So that the book’s central argument applies broadly, the argument is constructed to not depend on taking a particular position on these questions of responsibility-sensitivity. After establishing the central claim, I do adopt positions on some of these questions in order to develop the argument’s implications. But, one might accept the central claim and take different positions on these further questions, yielding a different set of implications—and indeed, I’d welcome seeing the claim to free time incorporated into theories of justice in other ways (pp. 6-7, 60-65).

    To return to the issue of caregiving, I argue that if one accepts that society has a general obligation to meet the basic needs of those who are unable to do so themselves, then such caregiving (i.e. for the sick, disabled, and elderly, excluding one’s procreative children) is not a discretionary use of one’s free time, but is a domain of necessary time—like necessary paid work—that subtracts from one’s free time. Further, if one accepts that parents produce public goods by creating and raising children, then the time parents spend engaged in basic caregiving of their children ought also to qualify as necessary time, rather than as a use of one’s free time. (It is important to note two qualifications: First, not all of the time parents spend with their children would qualify as necessary; time parents spend with their children beyond that which is necessary to meet the child’s basic needs—e.g. watching every soccer practice—is indeed a use of their free time. Second, beyond some rate of population growth n, additional children may produce greater social costs than public benefits, and so, if implementing such a policy were consistent with other liberal egalitarian values, basic caregiving for greater than n children may increasingly qualify as a use of parents’ free time [pp. 122-23].)

    I don’t develop new arguments for either of these underlying positions—that society is obligated to meet the basic needs of its members, and that parents provide public goods by rearing children—but instead take on these positions that are widely held within liberal egalitarian theories of justice to develop the implications for citizens’ claims to free time. With some additional considerations, I argue that treating caregiving as a necessary activity yields the aim of ensuring that citizens have the opportunity to (1) engage in full-time paid work, (2) engage in full-time direct caregiving, and (3) engage in both paid work and direct caregiving, all while having free time (pp. 60-65, 119-26).

    Third, Rakowski writes that “an undercurrent of what some will see as anti-liberal disapproval of economic or professional striving runs through the book and shapes its account of what justice requires.” The question of whether the view contains an anti-liberal disapproval of striving is an important one that deserves attention.

    On my view, citizens are entitled to a fair share of free time to pursue their own ends, whatever those may be. What is valuable about free time is that it is time that one can use at one’s discretion, to devote to one’s chosen pursuits. Citizens’ claims to free time are not conditional on how they spend it. Importantly, and following the view’s liberal commitments, this includes the choice to spend one’s free time working, whether because one enjoys one’s work, wishes to earn more, wants to strive and excel, or for any other reason.

    As such, at the level of public policy, the ideal maximum hours regulation would serve two ends: First, it would guarantee everyone the right to choose not to work longer hours than is necessary to have their fair share of free time, and second, it would allow everyone to use their free time to work longer hours if they so choose. Accordingly, the ideal regulation would not prohibit working more than a maximum number of hours, but would instead guarantee each employee the right to refuse to work longer than a maximum number of hours.

    These two policy aims may, however, sometimes come into conflict: the competitive pressures and social norms in a given field may be such that some employees’ choices to work longer hours undermine the ability of other employees to choose not to work longer hours. Consistent with standard liberal egalitarian principles, guaranteeing the conditions for the effective exercise of the basic liberties, here free time, has priority over the unfettered exercise of the economic liberties. As such, if, and only if, a right-to-refuse maximum hours regulation were insufficient to reliably guarantee all employees the right to choose not to work longer hours than is necessary to have their fair share of free time, then more restrictive maximum hours regulations—narrowly tailored to this aim—would be justified. Yet, even if a prohibitive maximum work hours regulation for a particular field were justified—again, consistent with the underlying argument for free time—it would not preclude someone from choosing to work additional hours for a different employer, or from doing entrepreneurial work on the side, or from studying or taking classes to get ahead (pp. 138-139).

    These considerations ought to allay concerns about an illiberal anti-striving undercurrent. Further, I argue that, while one has an all things considered claim to a fair share of free time, one has only a pro tanto claim to free time in one’s chosen occupational position. This pro tanto claim can be defeated by several types of reasons, including that some positions depend on relative excellence, which almost unavoidably requires working longer hours. So, to take an example, for a lawyer’s claim to free time to be realized, she is not entitled to limited work hours at even the most prestigious firms and most demanding positions within the profession, though she does have a presumptive claim to free time in other positions within the profession. Similarly, guaranteeing free time to entrepreneurs or the self-employed might pose an unacceptable moral hazard problem, and if so, though they would still have an all things considered claim to free time as citizens, they would not be entitled to free time within these occupational positions (pp. 90-92).

    Finally, Rakowski expresses concern that, if the proposed claims to free time were realized, “our world would look very different—poorer, less exhilarating, less excellent, if in some ways more equal.” Whether recognizing citizens’ claims to free time would result in a less exhilarating or exciting society is, to be clear, beyond the argument’s scope; the book’s argument is a liberal non-perfectionist one, and holds that people are entitled to free time to devote to their own ends, whatever those may be. Nonetheless, I imagine that a society in which all citizens, rather than only an advantaged class, have free time would be a more exciting and creative world, with greater and more diverse forms of human excellence. People might choose to study, tinker, develop new ideas and businesses, pursue artistic endeavors, strengthen their relationships, participate more in their social, religious, and political communities, or pursue their own personal growth and development. Compared to a society such as our own, I believe that a society in which all had their fair shares of free time would, properly understood, be not a poorer but a richer one.

  2. Tom Parr says:

    Thanks for this interesting reply, Julie. I want to focus on the claim that, when a parent spends time meeting the basic needs of her children, this is in the domain of necessary time, rather than the discretionary use of her free time. One concern that I have with this view is that it implies that the parent has a claim to some kind of compensation for performing an activity that she regards as a source of great value and meaning to her. More worryingly, it implies that she has a claim to compensation *from non-parents*, who, by her own lights, are missing out on a source of great value and meaning. These strike me as intuitively unappealing implications. What do you think?

    To be sure, we should not over-state the applicability of these concerns. For one, not all parents do regard parenting as a source of great value and meaning. Some view their decision to have children with regret. Additionally, the factors to which I appeal seem to have greater force in cases of parenting than in cases where people care for elderly relatives out of a sense of moral obligation. Here, it is perhaps less plausible to maintain that carers typically regard this activity as a source of great value and meaning.

  3. Julie Rose says:

    Thanks very much for this, Tom.

    It’s perhaps worth stating at the outset that the view that parenting qualifies as necessary time is one of the responsibility-related positions that someone might reject without that affecting the central claim that citizens have claims to fair shares of free time. I think we should regard parenting–or depending on the circumstances, at least some parenting–as necessary time, but I’m more concerned that people accept the central claim about free time.

    That said, and to your point, the public goods argument, which I rely on, isn’t it seems to me affected by the claim that some, or even all, parents view childrearing as a source of great value and meaning. The argument requires establishing that parents incur costs while providing nonexcludable benefits within a cooperative scheme, and so the beneficiaries are obligated to fairly share the costs of parenting. The argument might also require, on some versions, that parents are at least partially motivated, in their decision to have children or in their parenting decisions, to provide social benefits. But, even on this view, it seems that it’s entirely compatible to do an activity, and to do it in particular ways, while both deriving great value and meaning from doing that activity, and being partially motivated to provide social benefits. We might, in this respect, compare parenting to working: many people derive great value and meaning from their work, and are motivated, at least in part, to pursue their occupations because they provide social benefits. Indeed, that’s the relationship we might hope for people to have to their work. But the fact that some people derive meaning from their work isn’t, on my view, relevant to the claim that work to meet one’s basic needs should qualify as necessary time, and similarly with parenting.

    This isn’t directly relevant to the point you raised, but while we’re addressing parenting, I’d also like to clarify a couple of points about “compensating” parents: First, on my view, parents do not have a claim to compensation as parents, for parenting; instead, they have a claim to free time as citizens. It’s possible to be a parent and have no shortage of free time (e.g. a school-age child’s wealthy parent who must work only a few hours per week); if so, that parent has no free time-based claim to social resources.

    Also, parents’ claims to free time shouldn’t be thought to be realized only, or primarily, through monetary transfers, which compensation might suggest. Instead, the primary means of realizing parents’ claims to free time might be employment regulations permitting them to work shorter hours (with wage subsidies if necessary) and publicly funded childcare and after school programs.

    All that said, I realize that some people are skeptical about the public goods argument for childrearing, and the more general position that nonparents should share the costs of parenting, in which case I’d refer back to the first point above. And thanks again for the good question —

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