All Time is Free Time

Living is free until you trade it for money.

You must work hard to earn free time, says the mantra of commerce and industry.

Before entering the labour market, did we purchase our time? No, our time was already free. Work is not about earning free time, but about selling it. Jobs only take time away from us; they do not reward us with more of it. We will never end up with more free time after working than we had before. Jobs only subtract from our free time.

If the point of our work is to achieve more free time, our efforts are blatantly counterproductive. If leisure and time together is our goal, it makes far more sense to simply work less.

We don’t work to earn time. We work to earn money. We convert time, which is free, into a commodity of exchange. We impute value to hours. This equation allows us to trade our time — a finite, nonrenewable resource — for currency. In doing so, en masse, we effectively monetize the existence of one another.

Of course, there are many benefits to this arrangement. As an apple farmer, a financial market system allows me to sell my fruit to the grocer and buy what I need from the butcher, carpenter, and blacksmith. Without money, I have no bartering power with the butcher, carpenter, and blacksmith, except for bushels and bushels of apples. What if they don’t need or want apples? The money system solves this problem brilliantly.

But there is a psychological cost to participating in this ecosystem of transactions. I know how many dollars I earn for a bushel of apples, and I know how many hours of my life are required to produce it. My time — by the hour — is now appraised by the market. I can no longer talk about the value of my produce apart from the value of my time as a producer. Free time now refers to the portions of my existence when I am not earning money.

It is either your money or your time, we say. As a result, time to think, to just be, and to sit by the river and ponder life with a good book — this is no longer ‘free’ time. It is time we must purchase. And once on the time-is-money treadmill, escape is difficult.

Who deserves free time in a market economy? The centralization of wealth equals centralizing the right to leisure. Cultural activities of leisure become relegated to those who can pay — for those who ‘have earned it.’ Free time becomes something like a ‘capital gain’ reward for the diligent and hardworking. Our narrative proclaims: the people who enjoy life the most are the ones who can take exotic holidays by ‘cashing out’ the investment of their work. Whereas one might think leisure is the absence of work, capitalism (ironically) leverages leisure as the principle incentivization to work harder. As a consequence, free time inevitably becomes an earned privilege.

Virtually everything in the system is positioned to reinforce this creed: time is money, money is time, and one is always needed to trade in exchange for the other. The social legitimacy our work hinges on our collective affirmation of this premise. There are many perks, yes: this mass neurosis supplies us with delightful trinkets and comforts. But even these appeasements arguably serve to distract us from the usurpation of our time. Our loss is placated and masked by the unquenchable need to invest more. The gifts of capitalism inherently perpetuate our desire for more of it.

To enjoy the benefits of the market, we must make a significant sacrifice. We must forget that all time is free time. We must bury this old, relic of an idea. We must shut it out, deny it. We must allow ourselves to be motivated and incentivized to work in exchange for manufactured, token blocks of leisure, dangling before us like carrots from sticks.

Can we change? Can we survive without enslaving so much of our free time — that is, our lives — to the mythology of our work? Are we destined to go on dividing conscious existence into fractional units (hours) that can be bought and sold? How long will we be content with this arrangement of commodifying ourselves?

I think we need to rebrand the ubiquitous doctrine that ‘time is money’ with a new slogan: ‘living is free until you trade it for money.’

Cite this page:
Shelley, James. (2020[2016]). 'All Time is Free Time' (in Simplicity Praxis). Originally published on October 29, 2016. Cited version last modified on July 30, 2020. Accessed on December 5, 2020. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permalink: https://jamesshelley.com?p=16380
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