My right to over-work

A restriction on the number of hours we put in per week would infringe our liberties.

by Richard Reeves, director of Intelligence Agency, an ideas consultancy; e-mail: richard@intelligenceagency.co.uk
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

All things considered, we live in a liberal society. Of course, there is a justifiable and proper clamour over issues such as national identity cards and curbs on smoking cigarettes and smacking innocents. But so long as we don't harm others, we are mostly free to lead our lives as we see fit.

But there is one area where so-called progressives appear bent on radically limiting the rights of consenting adults to engage in an activity that is not only harmless to others but positively beneficial for society. The wicked deed in question is Work. It is bad enough that the Government has signed up to the European Directive stipulating a maximum 48-hour week; but there are now loud voices from unions and left-leaning politicians for the opt-out clause from the maximum - which the UK insisted on retaining - to be junked as well.

It looks as though Patricia Hewitt will hold the line and keep the opt-out. To do otherwise would be an unacceptable infringement of individual liberty. If I choose to work more than 48 hours a week, what right has the Government to instruct me otherwise? Maybe I'm getting the overtime to pay for a family holiday; perhaps I'm running a business during a critical period; perhaps - shock-horror thought - I am doing more than 48 hours of work a week because I like it.

One of the oddities of this debate is that well-meaning commentators on the left have man- aged to turn the opt-out into an oppressive symbol of capitalist exploitation, rather than a minimum defence of individual liberty. Let's be clear about this: the principal right of the state to intervene to stop me undertaking a particular activity rests on demonstrable harm to others. There are exceptions to this rule - the seat-belt laws being the most obvious example - but they are, and should remain, few and far between.

If the opt-out goes, we'll be in the ludicrous situation of saying that two consenting adults are free to physically mutilate each other in a joint search for sexual pleasure, but that the same two adults are banned from freely entering into an employment contract allowing a working week of more than 48 hours. This should not be described as progress.

In any case, the arguments made against the opt-out are reed-thin. In the first place, the extent of the overwork problem is overstated. The working week of the average UK full-time employee in 2003 was 39.1 hours, down from 40.8 in 1995 - a fall of one and a half hours in eight years. Hardly Stakhanovite stuff. Sure, there are more people in the UK working over 48 hours than in other countries, but that is because most of those other countries have long-standing systems for regulating working time.

Next, the evidence for coercion is limited. According to the CIPD, three out of four long-hours workers are making a free choice. Among the others, there is a shifting mixture of culture, economic necessity and workload issues explaining the hours. And - last but not least - the evidence for the harm caused by long hours is inconclusive.

There are some signs that poor health and long hours might be related in some specific domains. And there is some indication that some spouses of long-hours workers wish that things were otherwise (although at least equal numbers seem perfectly happy with the arrangement). But let's be clear: even if the evidence that I was harming myself through my choice to work long hours was more compelling, this would still not justify state-mandated working weeks.

There are plenty of things I might choose to do that would be of doubtful benefit to me, but this is not just cause for a ban. I might smoke (in my own home) for 60 hours a week. I might read pornography, eat doughnuts or watch reality TV for days on end. None of these is terribly good for me, but none of them is banned.

The only possible argument for restricting working hours is that the long hours worked by one person creates an environment that makes it harder for another person to choose not to do the same. In other words, workaholic individuals can create workaholic workplace cultures - which means that harm is being done to others, justifying legislative intervention. But this doesn't stack up. For a start, people can choose to leave their job and go to another. And in any case the 'harm' being done in such an environment is too slippery to capture or measure in any sensible way.

It is for some of these reasons that the nations with more stringent restrictions on working hours are having second thoughts. The French finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, is now worried that the French 35-hour week is denting competitiveness. More importantly, the French people themselves, who originally embraced the new law, are now mostly opposed. This may be because they have rediscovered their revolutionary liberalism. More likely, they have discovered that the appeal of DIY stores wanes quickly.

But this should not be reduced to an economic argument. The competitiveness flowing from long hours is worth nothing if the people working them are doing so miserably against their own will or instincts. The progressive cause is to improve the quality of working life and then leave it to individuals to decide for themselves what the right work/life balance is going to be. When choice is the mantra of all the political parties, it would be odd indeed to see the Government removing my right to choose to work.

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