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Vacations for All

Mises Daily: Saturday, May 13, 2000 by

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One should never tire of the "free" gifts the political classes would like to give us. If we could just be free of those right-wing curmudgeons who insist on obeying those pesky laws of economics, there is no limit to the goodies that Congress, President Bill Clinton, and the state legislatures could give us.

The latest installment of "what are we doing for you lately" comes with a petition being started by Escape Magazine to have Congress require that Americans receive a mandated four weeks of vacation each year. The editors of Escape, along with their political and media allies, tell us that we would be more productive and much happier if only those evil bosses didn’t make us work so darn much!

ESCAPE Magazine believes it's time to do something about skyrocketing burnout and America's most hazardous work-related illness, Vacation Deficit Disorder. We're the most vacation-starved country in the industrialized world. By far. Small business employees, the majority of us, get an average of eight days off while Europeans and Australians receive four to six weeks paid leave. In total hours, we now work two months longer every year than Germans. Two weeks longer than the Japanese.
We've formed Work To Live because enough is enough. We hope you will join us in our campaign to change the insane burnout track we're all on and get the time we need to travel, explore, find your family, yourself.

And so we are supposed to sign a petition that says: "We the undersigned urge you to amend the fair labor standards law so that every American who has worked at a job for at least a year gets three weeks paid leave, increasing to four weeks after three years--by federal law, as they do in Europe."

That Escape is a magazine designed to help people choose various vacation packages should not be a sign that naked self-interest is at work. No, the people there want us to believe that they have our best interests at heart. They want our politicians to have the same outlook as their European counterparts, who mandate anywhere from a month to six weeks of time off for employees. And there certainly are at least some politicians here who are listening.

Who could be against time off? Indeed, that is one of the things that attracted me to teach on a college faculty. I receive time off for fall break, Thanksgiving, nearly a month at Christmas, a week in the spring, a month in the summer (if I choose to teach summer classes), and another week after that, not to mention other holidays. In short, if one likes vacations, this is the place to be.

(Let me also point out that I spend much of my vacation time writing articles and doing research papers. I enjoy what I am doing, however, so I can’t really call it work!)

It is also clear that individuals do need to take at least some time off from work, especially those people who have families. There is something to be said for parents who spend time with their children instead of working all of the time. However, that being the case, there is also something to be said for the government staying out of this issue. Like all of the other "free" gifts politicians give us, this one comes loaded with unwanted extras.

For the most part, Americans receive about two weeks' vacation each year plus a number of other holidays, which adds to about three weeks per year. Many jobs allow for more than that, while others do not permit such largess. What is clear is that for the government to mandate any time off at all is a grievous intrusion into private affairs of employees and employers.

Contrary to popular belief, time off did not occur because governments ordered companies to give employees a rest. Our ability to take time off from our jobs is due to the fact that an enormously productive economy is able to absorb some of that lost productivity and still provide us with a breathtaking standard of living. There is no other possible explanation.

For example, let us begin with a simple Robinson Crusoe example. Crusoe is marooned on a deserted island and must survive by his wits and whatever is available. (Unfortunately, Crusoe did not have the good sense to be shipwrecked on an island with a CBS camera crew and a boatload of "survivors" looking to earn a million dollars.)

After awhile, Crusoe becomes weary of subsistence living and wishes to take some time off. Unfortunately for him, time off from working means time off from either obtaining food to eat or having adequate shelter. If Crusoe is able to add to his "capital" stock like creating a fish trap, a device for harvesting coconuts, or finding an axe to help him build a shelter more quickly, however, he might be able to relax instead of always working. In other words, if Crusoe wants leisure, he must have adequate tools that will allow him to be more productive when he does work.

The Crusoe example also can be applied to our modern world. Europe might have the vaunted vacation legislation, but unless the Europeans can tap into capital which will allow workers to be more productive, then they can expect to see a real decline in their material standards of living.

While all of us may say we want more time off, what about those who prefer to be working? When the government of France ordered a maximum workweek of 35 hours (laughably, this was part of a harebrained government scheme to increase employment), French bureaucrats actually raided businesses to make sure that executives and other higher-level employees were not working longer than the government said they could. What was ostensibly a law to ensure that French workers don't work too hard became yet another intrusion by the state into peaceful, private decision making.

Another reason the political classes and their allies give that government must mandate more time off is that business owners are taskmasters and will refuse their employees any leisure at all. This reasoning assumes that firms do not compete for employees, who are merely wage slaves of unscrupulous capitalists. In truth, however, the granting of leisure is a perk like any other part of the pay and benefits packages that firms must offer if they wish to attract workers. People who like more time off will gravitate to those jobs which allow such perks, while those who don’t will find themselves employed in occupations where they are harder to replace.

For example, people in the news business, either television or newspapers, must put out a product nearly every day. Such occupations appeal to ambitious workers who like being "close to the action" and are not likely to want to stay away from their work for very long. Doctors and nurses will work long hours and even when they are away from their jobs often find themselves to be "on call."

There is no way that a government can adequately require each firm to grant equal blocks of time off without causing harm to the economy. While U.S. politicians like to point to the European model, they are less likely to want to emulate the European levels of unemployment. Double-digit joblessness is not uncommon on the Continent, and Spain just a few years ago had unemployment rates that mirrored the United States in the worst months of the Great Depression.

One of the main criticisms of government mandates is that they are based upon the specious reasoning of "one size fits all." Like the French bureaucrats and politicians, they assume that people want more and more leisure and are shocked, SHOCKED when they find out that at least some folks don’t mind being on the job.

This is not to say that all mandated vacations should be outlawed, however. Perhaps we might raise the standard of living in this country--not to mention increase our prospects for personal freedom--if we were to mandate that the political classes simply draw a salary and engage full-time in leisure activities.

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William Anderson teaches economics at North Greenville College. Send him MAIL.