Free Markets, Free People

Daily Archives: January 18, 2013


So lift those heavy eyelids

What if people could easily function with much less sleep?

Jon M at Sociological Speculation asked that question after observing that “new drugs such as Modafinil appear to vastly reduce the need for sleep without significant side effects (at least so far).” At extremes, as Jon M noted in a follow-up post, modafinil allows a reduction to 2.5 hours a night, but “the more common experiences seem to be people who reduce their sleep by a few hours habitually and people who use the drugs to stay up for extended periods once in a while without suffering the drastic cognitive declines insomnia normally entails.”  In fact, alertness is not the only reported cognitive benefit of the drug.

The US brand of modafinil, Provigil, did over $1.1 billion in US sales last year, but for the moment let’s dispense with the question of whether modafinil is everything it’s cracked up to be.  We’re speculating about the consequences of cheaply reducing or even eliminating the need for sleep for the masses.

If I can add to what’s already been said by several fine bloggers – Garett Jones at EconLog on the likely effect on wages, then Matt Yglesias at Slate sounding somewhat dour about the prospect, and Megan McArdle at the Daily Beast having fun with the speculation – the bottom line is that widely reducing the need for sleep would be a revolutionary good, as artificial light was.

For a sense of scale, there are about 252 million Americans age 15+, and on average they’re each awake about 5,585 hours a year.  Giving them each two extra hours a night for a year would be equivalent to adding the activity of 33 million people, without having to shelter, clothe, and feed 33 million more people.

Whatever objections critics have, sleeping less will be popular to the extent that people think the costs are low.  For all the billions of dollars spent trying to add years to their older lives, obviously people would spend more to add life to their younger years.  Who ever said, “If only I’d had less time!”?

Consider that the average employed parent usually sleeps 7.6 hours each workday.  He spends 8.8 of his remaining hours on work and related activities, 1.2 hours caring for others, and 2.5 hours on leisure and sports.

If he spends more time working productively (i.e. serving others), that’s good for both him and society.  The time and effort invested in birthing, educating, and sorting people for jobs is tremendous, so getting more out of people who are already born, educated, and sorted is just multiplying the return on sunk costs.

That’s a godsend for any society undergoing a demographic transition after the typical fall in birthrates, because aside from hoping for faster productivity growth, the specific ways to address having fewer workers per retiree – higher taxes, lower benefits, more immigration, or somehow spurring more people to invest in babies for decades – are unpleasant or difficult or both.

And if he uses extra hours to pursue happiness in other ways, that’s generally fine too.  A lot of people may simply get more out of their cable subscription. Others will finally have time for building and maintaining their families, reading, exercising, or learning a skill.

Yes, once a substantial number of people are enhancing their performance, others will likely have to follow suit if they want to compete.  But then, that’s also true of artificial light and many other technologies.  If people naturally slept only four hours a night and felt rested and alert, who would support a law forcing everyone to sleep twice as long, cutting a fifth of their waking hours so that everyone would slow down to the speed that some people prefer to live their lives?

I don’t think most people have such a strong presumption in favor of sleep.  We like feeling rested, or dreaming, but not sleeping as such; a substantial minority of Americans sleep less than advised despite the known costs, and so reveal their preference for waking life over oblivion.