Dear Mr. Avent,
In your blog post yesterday about the Lindau conference you mentioned the "lump-of-labour fallacy." I am writing to you in the hope of getting at least some response from an Economist correspondence to the research I have done on the validity, history and coherence of the fallacy claim.
I have written two scholarly articles on the fallacy, one published in 2000 as a chapter in an anthology, Working Time: International trends, theory and policy perspectives, and the second published in 2007 in the journal Review of Social Economy. I am quite sure that the later is the only article investigating the fallacy claim published in a peer-reviewed journal. I have updated the findings of this research in a recent open letter to Paul Krugman.
In my investigation I have come across quite a bit of interesting information related to the fallacy claim but the bottom line is this: the fallacy claim is itself an ignoratio elenchi fallacy. This point was made by Cecil Pigou in his 1913 book, Unemployment, and reiterated by Maurice Dobb in his 1928 Cambridge handbook, Wages. An ignoratio elenchi fallacy proceeds by subtly changing the subject and then winning the argument on the basis of the distraction. The distraction in this case is the alleged assumption, by advocates of shorter hours, that there is a fixed amount of work. Since it is obvious that the amount of work is not fixed, fallacy claimants conclude that reducing the hours of work cannot be a source of job creation.
In all my research, I have found only a few scattered instances where the proposals of advocates of shorter working time could be unequivocally shown to entail an assumption of a fixed amount of work. Even there, the apparent assumption, usually in some abstract calculation, could have easily been qualified by some additional remarks. But even if advocates of work time reduction DID assume a fixed amount of work, the fact that their arguments were inadequate would not in itself demonstrate the futility of the notion of creating employment by reducing the hours of work. As Pigou pointed out, "If it were a good ground for rejecting an opinion that many persons entertain it for bad reasons, there would, alas, be few current beliefs left standing!"
The Economist has invoked the lump-of-labour fallacy repeatedly in denigration of the idea that reducing the hours of work could help expand employment. As of April 2005, the fallacy claim had appeared in no fewer than 17 articles over the previous 12 years. I arranged passages from those articles in a parody, "Only so much work to go 'round."
On several occasions I have written to editors and correspondents at The Economist pointing out the anomalies in the fallacy claim and requesting that at least if they persist in invoking the claim, they acknowledge and or rebut the historical evidence against the claim's authenticity. The only satisfaction I have received is that the Economist's Essential Economics now identifies D.F. Schloss as the originator of the "Lump of Labour" phrase, without, however, acknowledging a source for that attribution (see p. 200 of my 2000 article).
I would be happy to debate you or any Economist correspondent formally on the proposition, "reducing the hours of work cannot create jobs because the idea is based on an assumption that there is a fixed amount of work to be done, which is a lump-of-labor fallacy." Before agreeing to such a debate, however, I recommend that you at least have a look at my articles to gauge whether there are likely to be any grounds left for defending the assertion.
Tom Walker. "Sandwichman"
"The 'lump-of-labor' case against work-sharing: populist fallacy or marginalist throwback?" in Working Time: International trends, theory and policy perspectives, Lonnie Golden and Deborah M. Figart, eds. London and New York: Routledge, 2000. http://hussonet.free.fr/lumplab.pdf
"Why economists dislike a lump of labor." Review of Social Economy, Sept. 2007, vol. 65, issue 3, pages 279-291. Abstract: http://econpapers.repec.org/article/tafrsocec/v_3a65_3ay_3a2007_3ai_3a3_3ap_3a279-291.htm
An Open Letter to Paul Krugman, May 2011. http://ecologicalheadstand.blogspot.com/2011/05/open-letter-to-paul-krugman.html
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