The Disappearing Art: Doing Nothing
While sitting on a bench outside a shop in Potemkin Bavaria last weekend, I reached for my iPhone. I had 10-15 minutes to kill while my wife and children shopped, so I thought I’d do some Internet surfing, maybe read from my Wall Street Journal or USA Today applications, check my Facebook and email, play a game.
But then my thoughts suddenly turned to Henry Hazlitt’s little classic Economics in One Lesson The lesson:
A vandal breaks a man’s window. His neighbors think it’s sad that his window got broken, but at least it creates $250 worth of work for the glass-maker, so that’s a good thing.
But it’s not. What the neighbors don’t see is, the neighbor now has $250 less. And his net loss of $250 isn’t replaced by the glass-maker’s net gain of $250 because the man was going to spend the $250 on a new suit, with the result that his tailor would have $250 and the man would have an intact window and new suit. Instead, the glass-maker has the $250, the man has his intact window, and the tailor has nothing. The net loss to society’s wealth: One new suit. But the neighbors just see the creation of a job for the glass-maker. They don’t see the loss of the new suit, so they think the vandal’s act of destruction has a benefit, which, of course, it doesn’t.
The lesson underscores an enormously important, yet even more enormously fundamental, point: Society’s wealth depends on stuff. The more stuff it can get, the better. The lessons from there reverberate: mere job creation for the sake of jobs is bunk, wasteful government spending saps our wealth because it doesn’t create anything, deflation (to a degree) is healthy because it lets us buy more stuff.
And the lesson that reverberated with me that afternoon in Frankenmuth: What are the hidden costs of any activity?
I used to enjoy people-watching. That afternoon in Frankenmuth was a great people-watching opportunity, but I was preparing to opt for squinty-eyed Internet surfing instead. I used to daydream. Although daydreaming has its spiritual and intellectual dangers, it’s a nice form of relaxation, but I was ready to ignore relaxation for some emailing. I used to like to stare into space and do nothing once in awhile. A waste of time, perhaps, but often a great wellspring of ideas (“It’s because,” Chesterton wrote, “artists do not practice, patrons do not patronize, crowds do not assemble to worship reverently the great work of Doing Nothing, that the world has lost its philosophy and even failed to invent a new religion”). I was ready to keep my mind occupied with a trivial game instead of welcoming the grace of new ideas.
With my iPhone, I see a productive use of time–reading, surfing, emailing–where time used to be wasted. But what do I fail see? What does my little world fail to produce when I fill every leisurely minute with podcasts and text messages?
I suspect I’m missing a whole lot more than just a new suit.
Ditch the iPhone?
No, I’m not going to throw away my iPhone. In fact, I’ll continue to fill idle minutes with it.
But I’ll try to remember that those little time-fillers come at a cost–probably many costs–that I’ll never see until I’m an old man and look back, realizing that I spent thousands of hours staring into that little screen and have nothing to show for it: no ideas, no insight, no sense of well-being, no contemplative moments bringing me closer to heaven.
Interestingly, in the realm of economics, it’s the same way. The people never see the costs of lost productivity, until they wake up years later and realize their society, as a whole, has suffered a decline in its standard of living. They didn’t realize at the time that their politicians were invisibly gadgeting away society’s long-term health by offering short-term visible benefits. They took the visible bait and became materially impoverished, just as people like me risk taking the visible iPhone and becoming spiritually impoverished.