The Division of Labour

I will be spending a fair bit of time this summer helping a friend who’s writing a book on economics. I’ll be doing some proof-reading and giving constructive criticism. I can do this because there is now a break in my other job taking notes for disabled students at Plymouth University. In between these jobs, I’ve been learning some accounting, some Java, and teaching myself some statistics and economics. This is in between my voluntary activities.

I tell you this, not because I think you will find me interesting (I’m not – and I should know; being me and all). I mention it as it bears upon a concept I came across in aforementioned friend’s economics book. That is the concept of the division of labour.

The idea is simple. In more primitive societies most people had to do most of everything that needed to be done. Sure, there might be division of labour within the family (i.e. women raise the children, men hunt), but most people would be involved in getting food; whether by hunting, fishing, foraging or farming.

Eventually, people were able to get more food than they needed to subsist on themselves – they had a surplus of food. That meant that there were people who were free to do other things (say, make tools) which they could then trade for that surplus food. Rather than everyone having to do a bit of everything, people could focus on what they were best at. Person A is useless at hunting, but can make bows and arrows. Person B is useless at making bows and arrows, but can hunt. Rather than both A and B doing a bit of both inefficiently, they each focus on their area of expertise and trade for what each other can’t make themselves. More food gets hunted and more bows and arrows are made as a result.

Adam Smith popularised this concept in his book, The Wealth of Nations. He used the example of a pin factory:

One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head; to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on, is a peculiar business, to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them.

He noticed that by getting each worker to focus on one aspect of making a pin then passing it on to another, they could make many more pins than if each worker had to each make a whole pin. He reckoned that each worker could make 4,800 pins on average in this way; whereas each worker may only make 1 to 20 pins if they had to do it all themselves. A big difference.

Modern industrial societies have now attained a high degree of division of labour – one can be a butcher, brewer or baker, tinker, tailor, soldier or spy – and are vastly more productive as a result.

He was not entirely starry-eyed about this process, though. It might have been good over-all – but it made the job for each worker repetitive and unthinking:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.

Karl Marx had a similar criticism of the division of labour, and looked forward to a communist society where a man could:

hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd or critic

Never mind that in actual communist societies you probably pretended to work in the morning, afternoon and evening, before being sent to the Gulag after your rationed dinner. It’s a nice ideal to aim for. And my current lifestyle approximates it.



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2 responses to “The Division of Labour

  1. Pingback: Economics, Part 1, Chapter 1 | Steven Clarke's Blog

  2. Pingback: Dishwashers, Subsititute Goods and the Decline of the Nuclear Family | Steven Clarke's Blog

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