Vol. 13 No. 7 (July 2003)
A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE: LAW AND THE BALANCE OF LIFE by Todd D. Rakoff. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002. 227 pp. Cloth $27.95. ISBN: 0-674-00910-X
Reviewed by Christine A. Yalda, School of Justice Studies, Arizona State University
In A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE: LAW AND THE BALANCE OF LIFE, Todd D. Rakoff offers a compelling and critical examination of law’s role in creating and maintaining structures of time. He argues, as many readers no doubt will agree, “even with legal support, the fabric of social time is fraying” (p.177). Work time increasingly dominates everyday life, taking time away from self, children, spouses, civic and religious organizations, friendships, and leisure. As a result, our lives are out of balance and our social institutions suffer. He concludes that we “should use some of our power to create law to help us shape a structure of time that will, in turn, help us to live fulfilled lives” (p.184). This structure is critical not only for personal fulfillment but for maintaining a democratic civil society. Even so, constructing this “balance of life” will be no easy task.
While other scholars have examined the social and cultural nature of time, Rakoff, a Harvard administrative law professor, employs a constructivist approach to consider law’s role in creating and maintaining temporal orders of family and community time, school time, and work time. The book is well organized and clearly written. Each chapter builds theoretically and substantively on its predecessors. Through history, statutes and case law, Rakoff penetrates the taken-for-granted notion of time in modern American culture as “an unformed neutral backdrop” to everyday life to identity and explore the “boundaries” of time and their legal and moral implications. He draws on four facets of time: allocation of time as a resource; coordination of activities (synchronization and sequencing); temporal rhythms; and “meaningful textures of time.”
Rakoff begins by “telling time,” tracing the legal construction of standardized time zones in the United States. He argues that time zones arose to facilitate large-scale commerce, including the coordination of railroad schedules, mail delivery, telegraphic signals, and eventually the economic system generally. The implementation of time zones confirmed the economic value of coordinating individuals and their actions. In addition, this coordination furthered the concept of social space, that social coordination required and reinforced social cohesion. Finally, creation of temporal homogeneity within zones worked to define boundaries between zones, boundaries later formalized by federal law.
Rakoff recognizes the power and politics of structuring time, as “who coordinates with whom affects people’s material interests, their political organization, and their sense of the world.” However, he argues, Americans view time as more than just an organizing mechanism. Time is a not simply a resource, a commodity whose use and direction implicate social responsibility and economic efficiency. Whether in the factory or the family, time is relational as well. Law furthers social cohesion and coordination through differentiation and synchronization, working both directly (regulating the work week and days off) and indirectly (enforcing private agreements related to work time and conditions) to constitute the relations of time.
“Time off” serves not only as time to rest but provides time for stable and recurring relations with others, associations that “build the skills and norms needed for trust, accommodation, and social cohesion among members of society and also provide the springboard for movements for social change” (p.47). Having common days of rest (e.g. Sundays and holidays) helps to further voluntary social activities and to develop the social capital provided by multiple constitutive groups.
Unfortunately, Rakoff argues, work time increasingly has intruded into social time. Cultural, social, and political forces influence contemporary workers to work long hours, motivated by such inducements as advancement and success, equity issues, social support, concrete accomplishments of work as opposed to family life, and the relative emotional “safety” of the workplace. The new digital economy further intrudes into social and family time, dissolving physical and temporal boundaries.
After a chapter discussing school time as “a social pattern with considerable force” (p.99) that must be protected, Rakoff returns to the regulation of work time. He suggests that the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), by establishing a 40-hour workweek, set limits that defined expectations and social understandings about employment. However, mandatory overtime and other provisions enforced through at-will employment policies and supported by arbitration and case law undermine the FLSA’s intent. Furthermore, the FLSA exempts certain administrative, professional, and executive employees. Rakoff argues, in the absence of legal protection, the market has failed to limit employees’ work time. This has serious consequences for family, school, community, and personal time, making it difficult for employees to lead balanced lives.
The question then is how to establish norms that set appropriate work limits? A functional needs-based approach would be useless because society will always want its workers to produce more. Natural limits, the point at which productivity starts to diminish, would be difficult to determine and would vary among individuals. External limits might feel coercive to both employers and employees, especially since many exempt employees either do not keep track of time or enjoy flexibility in meeting their work obligations. In any event, Rakoff contends, work time must be established as limited, recurrent, stable, and patterned in order to protect the non-work activities necessary to promote social cooperation and cohesion. “This structure of work time is immensely important to the maintenance of other social possibilities that might otherwise be crowded out by the demands of work” (p.97).
Indeed, work demands can become a source of conflict as they crowd and cross into family and social time. These conflicts at the boundaries can become matters of legal dispute as well. Rakoff presents the refusal of overtime work, tardiness and absences, and work shift scheduling conflicts as examples, tracing the impact of statute, case law, arbitration, and private agreements on employee interests. Although the parties can vary most of the rules governing work by private agreement, the law often provides the baseline norm, especially through court decisions and arbitration outcomes. For many at-will employees, “law at the boundary between work time and family time is simply that the employer’s rules control the situation” (p.130). Even where employees have entered into collective bargaining agreements, the contract terms must be specific or the employee’s interests must both be reasonable and outweigh the employer’s needs. Rakoff concludes that management controls the boundaries between work and family time just by virtue of being management. “The law is taking a stand” (p.143), and the stand privileges employers.
Rakoff reasons that voluntary changes to protect employees are unlikely. Rather, “we need to understand that society must intervene to correct imbalances of power if these are preventing the maintenance of family, civic, religious, and other forms of group time” (p.144). The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 reflects one attempt to “reallocate power to organize time” to the employee’s benefit (p.145). Recent Congressional considerations of overtime and comp time statutes offer other alternatives, though none have been passed to date.
The ultimate question is “When, how, and to what extent should the law provide a structure for social time?” (p158). Rakoff suggests that deregulating time – a “freedom of time” regime – would not suffice. This would not mean an absence of law but rather reliance on the negotiation and enforcement of private orderings between individuals and institutions. Under this approach, law would provide rules and procedures to create a common language for ordering and enforcing voluntary private agreements, provide default (supplemental) rules, and protect the freedom of the parties (no duress or discrimination). In this view, market forces would decide what time is valuable and how much it is worth.
Rakoff reminds us again, though, that time is more than a resource; it is relational. “We must think of the pattern those hours form, of the way one person’s hours relate to another’s, of the resulting texture of life. Any adequate theory of what the law of time should look like must address its multifaceted nature and not treat the problem as equivalent to finding the most efficient mix of uses of a fungible commodity” (p.163). Different institutional settings may have distinct rhythms and textures of time. Additionally, these various institutional settings require different roles from the individual. Thus, Rakoff argues, the “ideal of balance” should govern our decision-making (p.166).
Under a constructed time regime, law would create social mechanisms at the societal level to further the purposes and boundaries of social time. Rakoff suggests that regulating time in this way would “vitally support our need as a society to maintain a healthy plurality of differentiated institutions, and our need as individuals to maintain a healthy balance among our commitments to the various institutions in which we participate” (p.167).
How do these regimes stand up in competition? According to Rakoff, arranging social time solely by private agreement turns out to be a very complex practice, requiring multiple negotiations and agreements. The “free” market can be coercive. Competition for positions, a desire for material goods, and the like, may force people to work long hours. Institutions and groups in power could dominate the ordering process, privileging school and work time, and leaving other activities to “residual” time.
However, constructed time is not unproblematic either. It is hard to determine the proper balance of life. Regulation may be subject to social and political interest group pressures, thus reducing diversity, creativity, and the possibility of social experimentation. Still, Rakoff argues, we are better off with some version of constructed time, “some collection of mechanisms…applied to various pressure points in our social structure of time…providing a structure in which balance and diversity are both adequately (although not ideally) addressed” (p.182).
While offering an insightful look at the relationship between law and time, the book has its limitations. Rakoff’s analysis ultimately rests upon those fairly traditional notions of individual rights and group interests inherent in liberal pluralism. He trusts that temporal conflicts are best resolved in “a political system based on group contestation, leavened by the power of the popular vote” (p.178). Furthermore, Rakoff does not situate his discussion within the context of others equally critical of dominant cultural constructions of time or their legal effects. Feminists, for example, long have criticized constructions of work time that force women to juggle responsibilities in the public and private spheres or sacrifice one for the other (see, e.g. Forman 1989). These feminist critiques parallel and foreshadow the temporal concerns Rakoff now expresses here. Finally, Rakoff’s attention to the dilemmas of exempt professional, executive, and administrative workers leaves him little time to consider the contemporary problems of the working class and the working poor.
Still, the book reveals how temporal conflicts are embodied and lived out by increasingly torn and worn out workers and warns of declining social capital in the face of increasing economic demands. Addressing law’s instrumental and cultural effects, it would be a useful text for employment or administrative law courses or for courses in law and society or justice in everyday life. Rakoff's book offers for many a revealing and all-too-familiar portrait of life’s imbalances in 21st century middle-class America, where purpose often gets lost in the shuffle between one obligation and the next. A TIME FOR EVERY PURPOSE suggests that there is nothing “natural” about our often-mad dash and that, individually and as a society, we must begin to question not only its personal but also its civic consequences.
Forman, Frieda Johles. 1989. “Feminizing Time: An Introduction” in TAKING OUR TIME: FEMINIST PERSPECTIVES ON TEMPORALITY, edited by F. Forman. Oxford, U.K: Pergamon Press.
Copyright 2003 by the author, Christine A. Yalda.
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