When I was growing up in Ghana, I was told many times that the devil finds work for idle hands. I was taught to keep myself engaged in some type of productive work at all times so that the demons wouldn’t tempt me and lead me astray. After a while, given how much I was being asked to do at home and on my father’s farm, I began to wonder whether the whole thing wasn’t some mental trick being played on me to prevent me from complaining.

In the capitalist world, we are told that it is not a great idea to have the entire workforce employed at all times. The thinking is that if there is no slack in the labor market, workers would have too much bargaining power. They would constantly demand higher salaries, and those wage pressures would drive up inflation, a monster that needs to be kept at bay at all cost. Policymakers put mechanisms in place to ensure that ideally, around four percent of the workforce remains unemployed at any given time. These able-bodied people are essentially paid to remain idle at home. They may fall prey to the machinations of the devil, but the guardians of the economy say that it is a price worth paying. I understand the technical argument, but I have always been quite ambivalent about it.

I had a fondness for the Soviet concept of full employment. Because they operated a socialist system with a centrally planned economy, the Soviet authorities didn’t have to worry about their workers having too much bargaining power. In fact, they had none. All able-bodied Soviets were engaged in some form of work.

Although their society was secular, the Soviets seemed to abide by the Biblical rule in 2 Thessalonians chapter 3:10, which says that “if a man will not work, he shall not eat.” One of my favorite Soviet sayings was “kto ne rabotaet, to ne yiest,” which translates to “he who doesn’t work doesn’t eat.” In the Biblical verse, Saint Paul seemed to allude to willful refusal to work by someone who was able-bodied. The Soviet aphorism sounded a bit more blanket.

I was always impressed by the cleanliness of Soviet cities. Even though they were rarely littered, there were elderly people, mostly women, who were constantly sweeping away whatever didn’t belong in the streets and public areas. They also tended to the numerous public gardens that made the cities look absolutely beautiful, especially during the spring seasons. The elderly did all that cleaning while the younger people worked in factories and elsewhere.

But the Soviets perhaps took their idea of full employment a bit too far. I contracted chicken pox once in the late 1980s when I was a foreign student at a university in Donetsk, Ukraine. I was admitted to one of the local hospitals. The ward I was kept in was a fairly large room with about twelve beds. As would be expected, I was the only black person in the room. During the five or so days that I had been there, I had seen some of the Soviet patients sweeping and mopping the floor. I didn’t think much of it because I assumed they were doing it voluntarily to stretch their muscles.

I had always assumed that the hospital had housekeeping staff who were responsible for cleaning the major areas, including the wards. In the morning of my fifth day in the ward, I overheard one nurse asking who was on duty. After a brief moment of silence, I saw a couple of the other patients looking in my direction. One of them pointed at me. The nurse walked over and asked me to fetch a broom and mop from an adjacent closet and clean the floor. I was dumbfounded. I sat still for several seconds, thinking that I was having a bad dream. But she stood there waiting for me to get up, and then I realized that the thing was real.

I thought about engaging the ward population in a debate about what constitutes an able-bodied person. But I realized that I was vastly outnumbered and could not win that argument so I abandoned the idea. Instead, I got up, marched into the doctor’s office, and asked for my immediate release from the hospital. In my view, I had already recovered enough to be sent back to my dormitory. I told her what had happened in the ward but she was unmoved by it. She was initially reluctant to discharge me but I persuaded her eventually. After thanking her, I hurried back to the ward. I made no eye contact with anyone because I feared someone would insist that I finish my assignment. I picked up my belongings and headed straight to a nearby bus stop to catch a bus to my dormitory.

Every jaw dropped when I recounted the incident to some of the other foreign students in the dormitory. None of them had heard anything like that in their lives. They all said they would have acted the same way I did.

In spite of that unpleasant experience, my admiration for the Soviet concept of full employment remains undiminished. I still don’t know if my refusal to do the janitorial work in the ward that morning was willful or not. Convincing the doctor that I was well enough to leave the hospital that day was perhaps an admission that I was back to able-bodied status. But I will let Paul the Apostle be the judge on that. I just hope that by eating later that day, I didn’t jeopardize my chance of going to Heaven in the afterlife.