TCS Daily

Darkness at One?

By Henry Sturman - March 24, 2004 12:00 AM

Soon people in many countries will set their clocks an hour forward (in most of Europe on Sunday, March 28; in most of the United States on Sunday, April 4). This collective delusion is called Daylight Saving Time (or Summer Time). Contrary to popular belief, nothing is gained by this agreement to lie about the time half of the year, while it does have various unpleasant effects.

Daylight Saving Time is a misnomer. No daylight can be saved by changing the names of the hours of the day, that is by calling noon one o'clock, calling one o'clock two o'clock, and so on. A poll found that people like Daylight Saving Time because it gives them more light in the evening and allows them to do more in the evening. Of course Daylight Saving Time does no such thing. The sun sets at the same time in the evening on any given day, no matter what we call that time. The reasoning of the people polled is similar to that of the fringe group "The 28 Hour Day", which wants to change the week from seven 24-hour days to six 28-hour days on the grounds that one then has more time to do the things one wants to do. Changing the clock to get more daylight in the evening is like making a rope longer by cutting a piece off one end and attaching it to the other end.

When we move the clock forward an hour in spring, we indeed have more light after work to enjoy outdoor activities and we may save on electricity. However, that has nothing to do with our changing the clock. It has to do with our decision to get up and go to work one hour earlier when Daylight Saving Time begins. But we don't need to change the clock to do that. If people want to start work an hour earlier in summer, they can simply agree to do that, without sugar-coating the clock to display a number that doesn't look so early.

Some have mistakenly claimed that Benjamin Franklin was the inventor of Daylight Saving Time. Franklin did write a satirical essay in 1784, in which he claimed to have been the first to discover that the sun gives light as soon as it rises. In order to induce people to make more use of daylight and save on candle expenditures, he jokingly proposed candle taxes, candle rations, evening curfews and the ringing of church bells and cannon fire early in the morning. But he did not suggest moving the clock forward. That was first proposed by the Englishman William Willet in 1907. Daylight Saving Time was first adopted in 1916 by several European countries.

It is no coincidence that Daylight Saving Time started to become popular around the same time as the rise of the regulatory state. When the idea was first proposed it was justly met with ridicule. But as economic regulation fallacies became popular, so did the fallacy of time regulation. Both are based same idea that you can have something for nothing. People started believing that they could increase their incomes by minimum wage laws, improve their health by health regulations and improve living conditions by paying more and more taxes for "free" government services. Thus, while in the old and primitive days productivity was seen as the source of wealth, the modern view was that regulation was the source of wealth. Similarly people began to see regulation of the clock, rather than the sun, as the source of daylight.

Government can't really make people get up earlier than they want to by telling them to change their clocks. In the long run people compensate their time schedules to correspond to their true daylight preferences, no matter what the clock says. Daylight Saving Time moves the clock forward an average of half an hour over the full year. So we can expect people simply to compensate for that by moving their workday forward half an hour according to clock time. This appears to be exactly what has happened. In the early 20th century most people did start work earlier than they do now. So while many office hours are from nine to five, they probably would have been from 8:30 till 4:30 without Daylight Saving Time. Therefore, Daylight Saving Time doesn't really increase the amount of daylight after work or save energy. It works only like a drug to induce this effect temporarily, until people revert to their true time schedule preferences over the course of several years or decades.

It may be argued that while shifting the clock an hour forward all year long has no long term effect for the reason given above, there is a benefit of shifting the clock only during the summer. The idea is that daylight is mostly wasted in the Summer, when the sun rises early while people are still sleeping. Therefore it seems like a good idea to move the clock forward in the summer. But in the winter we don't want to move the clock forward, because then we would have to go to work when it's still dark. There are at least five reasons why this argument is unconvincing.

First, if people really were interested in being able to travel to and from work during daylight, they would set the middle of their workday at noon, when the sun is at its highest position. Customary office hours would then be from eight to four instead of from nine to five. This ensures a maximum number of days during the year of being able to travel both to and from work during daylight, without any need for Daylight Saving Time. In fact, in all but the most northern and southern countries people would be able to travel to and from work in daylight all year long.

Second, if people wish to make more use of daylight they are free to do so by getting up as soon as the sun rises and shifting some of their spare time after work to before work. If people also prefer to do their work at the start of the day, they can work from five in the morning until one in the afternoon. Then people could get up at four in the morning and go to bed at eight in the evening all year long. This schedule maximizes the amount of daylight one uses during any part of the year, without any need for Daylight Saving Time.

Third, if people really do prefer a different work schedule in summer than in winter, they are free to agree on a shift of work schedule during the summer, without any need for Daylight Saving Time. It makes no sense to try to impose the same shift on everybody, as everybody will have different preferences. Some will not want any shift. Some will want to shift their schedules one hour in summer, some two hours. There is no reason for all office hours to be the same, as long as there is enough overlap to make communication possible. It is becoming more and more desirable that different companies have different office hours anyway, to help solve traffic congestion.

Fourth, if people prefer to get up and go to work as soon as it gets light then they would have to gradually change their work schedule during the year. For example, in relatively northern cities like Berlin and London, it's light from about eight until four in mid-winter and from four until eight in mid-summer. If one wishes to get up at sunrise, one hour before starting work, then work hours should gradually shift from nine to five in the winter to five to one in the summer. That's a gradual shift of four hours, so it makes no sense to have a single one hour shift related to Daylight Saving Time.

Fifth, if the reason for Daylight Saving Time is to have more light after work for outdoor activities, the clock shift is exactly backwards. In the summer we already have lots of daylight after work. It is in winter that we are most lacking in daylight after work. So with this reasoning there's more basis for moving the clock forward an hour in winter than in summer. In summer we'll do best working from five in the morning until one in the afternoon and going to bed at eight in the evening. If it's light from four in the morning until eight in the evening, we'll spend all of our day, both work and spare time, in the light. But in winter, in places where it's only light from eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, we might rather work from one at night until nine in the morning and go to bed at four in the afternoon. Then we'd be working mostly in the dark, but at least all our spare time would be in the light. If we want to achieve this by changing the clock rather than changing our schedule, we would have to move the clock forward four hours in winter, rather than moving it forward one hour in summer.

While there are no advantages to Daylight Saving Time, there are plenty of disadvantages. Most importantly, we lose our natural sense of the meaning of time. It used to be the case that noon meant that the sun is (approximately) at its highest point. With Daylight Saving Time that is no longer the case. We suffer the inconvenience of having to change ever more clock-containing electronic devices twice a year (watches, VCRs, mobile phones, microwaves, stereo, etc.). Some people suffer from jetlag because of the clock change. One study found an 8 percent increase in traffic accidents on the Monday after clocks are moved forward. And webmasters have trouble interpreting hourly website statistics twice a year, when the day contains 23 or 25 hours instead of 24.

Apparently, for whatever reason, people like to be awake in the evening when it's already dark. This has become possible because of the invention of the electric light in the 19th century. Daylight Saving Time is a failed attempt by the 20th century regulatory state to undue the advantages of that modern technology, for people's own good. It's time to put an end to it.

Henry Sturman is a writer based in The Hague. He also runs a company that develops websites, software and database applications.


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