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Good Division

June 29, 2008

When Adam Smith talks about “division of labor” he’s recognizing a fundamental process underlying our progress and economic growth. In particular, he’s describing an evolving phenomena. Not only the nature of the subdivisions is continuously readjusted and refined, but the people involved switch jobs and tasks to find their most effective employment. In brief, it’s a discovery process, an emergent process, that works best in an environment where failures and successes are not only tolerated but the norm, and where the freedom of association and exchange is respected. This is the “good” kind of division.

There is however also a “bad” kind of division of labor, where people are stuck in a predetermined mold. The India castes system comes to mind, or the way humans are created in Huxley’s Brave New World:

On Rack 10 rows of next generation ‘s chemical workers were being trained in the toleration of lead, caustic soda, tar, chlorine […] A special mechanism kept their containers in constant rotation. “To improve their sense of balance,” Mr. Foster explained. “Doing repairs on the outside of a rocket in mid-air is a ticklish job. We slacken off the circulation when they’re right way up, so that they’re half-starved, and double the flow of surrogate when they’re upside down. They learn to a associate topsy-turvydom with well-being; in fact, they’re only truly happy when they’re standing on their heads.

This type of planned, long-term division of labor is not what Smith was talking about. Unfortunately, it seems that it is the latter that people think of when they hear about it. Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin thus begins his book “Fields, Factories and Workshops”.

WHO does not remember the remarkable chapter by which Adam Smith opens his inquiry into the nature and causes of the wealth of nations ? Even those of our contemporary economists who seldom revert to the works of the father of political economy, and often forget the ideas which inspired them, know that chapter almost by heart, so often has it been copied and recopied since. It has become an article of faith ; and the economical history of the century which has elapsed since Adam Smith wrote has been, so to speak, an actual commentary upon it. “Division of labour ” was its watchword. And the division and subdivision — the permanent subdivision — of functions has been pushed so far as to divide humanity into castes which are almost as firmly established as those of old India.

Not so. If anything the next hundred years have shown that there was nothing permanent to the degree and nature of subdivisions that existed in the late nineteenth century, and that the nations that grow more rapidly are those more able to adapt and change, fail and move on. Indeed, John Adams, America’s second president, said it best:

I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.

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