This article is reprinted with permission from the October 25, 2002 edition of the New York Law Journal. © 2002 NLP IP Company. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited.
A Time for Every Purpose – Law and the Balance of Life
By Todd D. Rakoff
Reviewed by David Wrobel
Ask the average reader of the New York Law Journal to address the subject of “time and the law, and you will likely be presented with a dreary discussion regarding billable hours. Happily, Todd D. Rakoff had a more ambitious agenda when he set to write “A Time for Every Purpose, which he believes to be “the first book ever written (at least in English) about the subject of the law of time.”
If you do not “have the time” to read this fascinating book, you probably should, because it concerns why you feel the way you do. The way Rakoff sees it, postmodern man is increasingly a victim of a “24/7/365” mentality which is blurring the lines between “work time” and “time off.” Social norms overwhelmingly value work over play. It is always acceptable to leave a social occasion because you “have to go to work” or you “have to go to school.” In how many workplaces, however, can you excuse yourself because you “need to have dinner with the family?” To ask the question is to answer it, and Rakoff, an Administrative law professor at Harvard, questions whether we can change our society (primarily through legislation) so as to achieve a more “balanced” life for all of us. You may not agree with his conclusions, but you must admire the way in which he builds his arguments.
To make his case, Rakoff presents an historical overview of the manner in which time is “measured” and “allocated,” matters which are so well-settled as “legal” issues that we have difficulty seeing them as such. But who decided that there should be seven days in a week? Who invented the “weekend”? Why does “overtime” start after 40 hours? Why do we assume that “business hours” are 9 to 5? And why don’t children go to school in “the summer?” Rakoff takes us through the answers to each one of these questions, and the result is a shattering of any illusions that there is something inherently “natural” in the way we account for and utilize our time. To the contrary, we learn that many our standard time conventions arose from modern commercial needs and have supplanted the natural rhythms which ruled the lives of our ancestors.
One of the more interesting portions of the book concerns the manner in which “Standardized Time” became prevalent. It may surprise the modern reader to learn that until the end of the nineteenth century, most people had no use for, or interest in, anything but the “local time.” Although people didn’t quite use sun dials, they did set their watches according to the sun. Thus, “local time” in Boston was different from “local time” in New York , but it didn’t matter much because the people of Boston had no need to synchronize their activities with the people of New York .
With the growth of commerce and communications came a need for a “standardized” system for telling time. In the absence of any government-endorsed common time, each railroad line by necessity created its own “railroad time” for its trains to be scheduled, usually set to the clock in the home office. Rakoff relates the remarkable fact that it was not unusual for rail travelers to arrive at major train stations and see a number of clocks reflecting the local time as well as the “times” of the various train lines which used the facility: “These clocks did not vary by a uniform hour, as do similar banks of clocks in modern airports; rather, they varies in chaotic profusion by a greater or smaller number of minutes.”
Understandably, the need for a Standardized time became widely accepted, and the Standard Time Act of 1918 gave the Interstate Commerce Commission the authority to establish the American time zones we now use. Thereafter, battles have been fought between proponents and opponents of Daylight Savings Time, and numerous communities have successfully petitioned the ICC to have their time zones shifted (the vast majority in an eastward direction.) In all these cases the same issue has arisen: people involved in business need to coordinate their activities and they would like to be on the same schedule. But there are limits: Not too many people are willing to start their “work day” hours before the sun rises, and even fewer would send their children to school in the middle of the night.
Thus, we learn, that there are certain “natural” rhythms that even modern capitalism cannot disturb. And, Rakoff explains, there are certain man-made rhythms, like the Monday through Friday work week, which have proved equally resilient and are worthy of protection.
Rakoff convincingly makes the case that life as we know it would be appreciably worse if the majority of people did not share the same “time off,” because this is the time when communities and families are nurtured. From this premise, Rakoff goes on to question whether we have enough time off, whether employers have too much power over their employees’ time, and whether more employees (like over-worked young associates) should have the right to “just say no” to longer work hours.
But do we work too much? Rakoff cites inconsistent studies on this point, one of which concluded that free time has dramatically increased (and has been spent watching TV!) Surely, even the most over-worked first year associate today would not trade her position for one in an real “sweat shop.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Rakoff, a professor of Administrative Law, concludes that that more government regulation is the answer to “halt a slide toward an unbalanced dominance of work time.” I remain unconvinced, but I enjoyed reading his argument. It was time well spent.