Near the end of his 1950s text Power and Responsibility, the German Catholic priest Romano Guardini makes the quite salient point that our increasing understanding and control of the material world around us won’t solve the basic questions of human existence. “When traffic moves more swiftly, smoothly,” he asks, “will people really gain time? They would, if improved transportation meant more rest and leisure. But does it?” Seventy years later, Guardini was on the money – more productivity doesn’t mean more time to relax. In 2020, James Suzman pointed out in his Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time that “most of us still work just as hard as our grandparents and great-grandparents did.” He especially notes that “despite unprecedented advances in technology and productivity in some of the world’s most advanced economies like Japan and South Korea, hundreds of avoidable deaths every year are now officially accredited to people logging eye-watering levels of overtime.” We’ve seen seventy years of technical development and productivity improvement since Guardini was writing, and it really just hasn’t improved our working situation. We have more time, the common adage goes, but we’re busier than ever. Guardini again flagged this problem back in the 50s: “And when man does have more leisure, what does he do with it? Does he really break away from the pressures of life, or does he fling himself into more and more crowded pleasures, more exaggerated sports; into reading, hearing and watching useless stuff; so that in reality, spirit-impoverishing busyness continues, only in other forms.”
Guardini’s general concern in Power and Responsibility is with – as the title suggests – the imbalance between our increasing amounts of power in the modern day and our poor sense of responsibility in how we exercise that power. Guardini of course is writing in a world that’s just experienced the horrors of the Second World War and the atom bomb – so it makes sense that these themes are on his mind. Technology, to his perspective, doesn’t necessarily make the world better. It increases our power, but unless our responsibility increases in a proportionate way, we won’t be able to harness the forces that we’ve summoned. Instead they will tear us apart.
It’s an important idea, and I think that idea of leisure time is a really potent way of exploring it. It’s actually one of two examples that he gives to illustrate his point, though – the other one’s about healthcare. As technology and science advance, he says, we will get healthier and have better medicinal care for when people get sick. And then things take a bit of a weird turn. It seems like he sort of argues that if welfare systems are too good, we’ll all become careless and stop investing in our health, because we’ll all develop this practiced dependency that stops us taking initiative for ourselves. I guess it’s sort of like the fat people in Wall-E? Guardini thinks that if healthcare gets too good, we’ll all turn into the fat people in Wall-E.
“The advantages of a well-planned, dependable [health] insurance system are indisputable. Sickness, unemployment, accidents, old age, and so on lose much of their terror when the material needs are assured. But let us imagine the goal of insurance-experts realized: one organization for all citizens, covering every possible need. What, in the long run, would be its effects upon the average man? What would become of personal conscientiousness and prudence, of independence and character, of healthy confidence and readiness for whatever comes? Wouldn’t such a system of total, automatic welfare be also a system of tutelage?”
I mean – okay, let’s take this one step at a time. In the first instance, I wonder what Guardini thinks heaven will be like – would it be a system of total automatic welfare? And if it is, does he imagine it would threaten our independence and character? Will the comfort and security of heaven cause us to lose our personal conscientiousness? This sort of argument is in the same ballpark as claiming that poverty is good because it motivates you to be entrepreneurial. I think we can have security without detonating our sense of independence.
Let me offer a slightly altered version of Guardini’s argument, though, because I think there’s still something in it. Let’s take this context of healthcare closer towards the conversation around leisure. If healthcare gets really good, if it extends our lives and fends off aging, there will still be an outstanding question as to the value of this extra time. The mechanical function of healthcare is separate to the value of the lives that are being preserved. It’s not good enough just to have more leisure time. It’s about what you do with the time that you have. The most obvious point of reference for this conversation is the Covid pandemic – back in March, for example, we talked about whether or not you could take confession over Zoom. The Catholics were complaining about not being allowed to go to Mass, and their arguments were that health, in and of itself, is not the core of life. In one of the articles we discussed, ‘The Pandemic: A Sacramental Reading,’ by José Granados, we read a critique of the decision to close church services: “A ‘zero risk’ policy has often been required when it comes to the sacraments, while reasonable risks were permitted to obtain food or drink. This corresponds to a notion of health as the essential or primary good, for which everything else must be sacrificed.”
And – you know, I don’t agree with the conclusion of that argument. I don’t think Mass is crucial for salvation, and so I think it’s entirely fine to shut down church services until we have a functioning vaccine and overwhelming levels of immunity. Even so, the broader point is worth considering – it’s the same sort of point Guardini made. When you increase productivity, you give people more leisure time, but you have to ask what that leisure time means. Similarly, when you lock everyone in their homes during a global pandemic, you keep them alive, but you also have to ask what that life means. Here in Melbourne, where we’ve had a full 262 days of lockdown, it’s a pointed question – you can keep people in their homes to keep them safe and alive, but what does that life look like? What’s the quality of that life? Especially as we transition into an open society again – when you relax lockdowns, you improve the overall quality of life, and – just to be really explicit – accept a certain number of Covid-related deaths. How do you balance those two? How do you judge the relative value of being alive against the quality of that life – and how do you make that judgement on the scale of millions of people? It’s the same basic through-line in all three arguments. Health, in and of itself, can’t be the essential or primary good. You can’t extend life indefinitely without considering the value of that life. You’ve got to have a reason to be alive. Similarly, when you’ve got tech bros prattling on about breakthroughs in productivity or whatever else – you can extend a life, or make it more productive, make it more leisurely – but the pure mechanical possibility isn’t reason in itself.