A student sent me a link to this article claiming that we would be better off with a thirty-hour as opposed to forty-hour workweek. I'm sympathetic to the argument: I think a lot of us are on the wrong side of the effort-outcome Laffer Curve, and we probably would do better if we followed the old adage and worked "smarter, not harder." While it seems simple to wave a magic wand, say "make it so," and get the world we want, reality is a lot more complicated.
If we passed a law making the marginal cost of hour #31 much higher than the marginal cost of hour #30 (wait a second--I think we've already done that with the health care law), it seems like it might lead to a better equilibrium. Maybe we're stuck in an inefficient signaling equilibrium in which everyone is signaling by putting forth levels of work effort that are higher than what would be socially optimal if we could all just get along.
The problem is that such legislation probably wouldn't address the fact that we signal. It would change the way the signaling manifests itself. Sure, we might work fewer hours, but we'd be willing to accept other stressors like less-pleasant working conditions in order to compete in a world with limited information. We have the institutions and norms we have for a reason. It may not be an articulated, designed reason, but the institutions and norms evolved to solve some problem. We would do well to tread lightly before thinking we can fix things with the legislative magic wand.
I invite readers to explore these questions. First, do we work too much? Second, what (if anything) can be done about it?