Building an Economy of Rest
The goal, and the greatest success, of capitalist economies is their ability to produce a lot. In fact, the incentives built into capitalism are tilted toward producing more stuff. It’s not necessarily human need that drives the increase in production—of course, a lot of the excess stuff that gets produced goes precisely to the people who need it the least! Rather, the way the economy is structured, where firms have to keep making and selling more in order to survive, is an incentive for maximizing efficiency and production.
This has created some real good, and even though it is not the most direct way to do it, it has raised people’s standards of living (even though this has been at a wildly unequal rate). But it also means that there is an incentive built into capitalism’s structure to disobey one of God’s greatest pieces of wisdom for human beings—wisdom so central for living well in God’s world that it’s part of the Ten Commandments. Production is not the only good: it must be balanced with rest.
While many countries have movements of workers fighting together for their dignity, this movement is fairly weak in the United States. As a consequence, workers in the US are overworked with 1,767 hours worked per worker each year, compared with 1,644 in Canada, an average of 1,513 in the European Union, and only 1,332 in Germany. Despite all this, America has very high rates of poverty when compared to many of these countries where workers work fewer hours. Our desire for constant production is not in service of ensuring everyone has enough.
Worse, these hours are not just coming from people who just want to work extra: they come from the fact that the US economy has very little rest built into it. While many countries give lots of paid parental leave—Canadians receive 17 weeks, Norwegians receive 35 weeks with full wage replacement or 45 weeks with 85% wage replacement—American workers receive zero weeks of guaranteed paid time off to be with their newly born children. There is no nationally required sick leave Americans receive either, and the only vacation days are public holidays, many of which American workers have to work on anyway. It’s no wonder Americans end up working so much. There is almost nothing in the US constraining capitalism’s tendency to keep people producing more and more.
If we see human beings as tools—mere labor hours—as capitalism encourages us to see them, there will be little incentive to give more than the minimum of rest to make sure they’re able to keep working, but not enough that they are able to enjoy either the fruits of their labor or simply the wonder of being a creature of God’s creation. There is surely dignity to be found in doing the creative work that God tasked us to do in the garden, but God did not only command us to work. He commanded us to rest. The charge to rest is woven into the creation fabric. God himself rested after his creation, which we are called to imitate. But rest is not only leisure: when God rested, scholars of the Bible tell us, he was taking up his rule over creation. The command to imitate God in his rest indicates that our labor in the economy is not the only way in which we carry out God's rule and reign in the world.
And in fact, labor in the formal economy is not the only work that counts under God's commandment to care for his world. The work of raising children, of giving one's time in relationships to others, in growing our creative capacities, in serving others where we will not be compensated—this is all good work that must be done, and the more formal economic production dominates our lives, the less time we have to do this work which is no less important to our task as God's image bearers.
How do we achieve an economy of rest, one that gives everyone the space to remember their humanity and to act according to their dignity? We can look to how people in the past and present have achieved that kind of rest. Reduction of work to 40 hours and 5 days a week in the US was achieved by workers united together in labor unions, even though for workers in many parts of the economy this has begun to creep up again. In the same way, workers in other countries have come together to make sure more rest is built into the economy, from sick leave to more public holidays to parental leave and more. Christians and churches should be on the side of an economy of rest, joining our voices with workers as they fight for their dignity in a sinful world.