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Does the Division of Labor Make Us Stupid?

Sarah Skwire

The division of labor might be my favorite human invention.

Adam Smith was worried that all this increasing specialization would render us stupid.

Last week, I mowed my lawn, cleaned my house, removed a hornet’s nest from my back porch, and killed the weeds on my lawn.

I did it all while I was in California, about 2,000 miles away from home.

And I did it all because of the division of labor.

Most often, when we teach or think about the division of labor, we think about Adam Smith’s classic example in The Wealth of Nations of the division of labor in a pin factory.

But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. 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.

Smith’s focus in his discussion of the division of labor is the way in which increased specialization increases productivity within an industry. Dividing up the jobs involved in making pins means that a lot more pins can be made a lot faster, and often a lot better, than if we stick with individually handcrafted artisanal pins.

Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations.

That’s really important, and it’s a crucial step forward in our understanding of how manufacturing and production work. No one can look at the Industrial Revolution, or at Henry Ford’s assembly lines, and not see the enormous productive increases that come with the division of labor.

But Smith was also worried that all this increasing specialization — this dividing up of jobs into their smallest components — would render us stupid. Someone whose work used to be making pins becomes a person whose job is straightening wire or cutting wire. That’s a major decrease in the intellectual demands of an occupation. If the division of labor means we no longer need to do a wide range of diverse jobs as part of our work, won’t we become turgid and dull?

If the division of labor means we no longer need to do a wide range of diverse jobs as part of our work, won’t we become turgid and dull?

It’s a good question. Smith wasn’t wrong to ask it. And the growth of cottage industry jobs and then factory jobs in the 18th and 19th centuries seems to have somewhat borne out his worries. These jobs, taken on their own, were not known for being intellectually engaging. Was the culture about to stultify?

Alfred North Whitehead responded to Smith’s concerns when he said, “Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking of them.” Whitehead’s comment is most often taken to mean that the increased automation that comes with civilization (washing machines, dishwashers, self-driving cars, and so on) frees us from tedious tasks and thus renders us more civilized. I’m a big fan of that argument (see, for example, “Capitalism Will Abolish Laundry Day”). But the problem I have with that claim at the moment, as I contemplate my hornet-free porch from my pristine living room, is that the emphasis on being able to “perform without thinking” seems to join with Smith’s concerns about the division of labor making us stupid.

And I’m not persuaded that’s what the division of labor does.

I think we should start talking about the division of labor not as a narrowing of what we can do but as a broadening of what we don’t have to do.

Here’s what I mean.

The division of labor and the increasing specialization of modern life mean that when I need my lawn mowed, I call a lawn guy. When I need a clean house, I call the housecleaning company. When I need a hornet’s nest removed, I panic, pour a drink, and call the hornet and bee removal guy. Before specialization, I would have had to be my own lawn guy, my own housecleaner, and my own terrified hornet removal guy. And as I can attest from my experience in the days when I was too broke to afford any of these specialists, I would have had an overgrown lawn, a messy house, and the best hornet hotel in Indiana.

The division of labor means that none of that is true. The world is full of people who can do for me the things that I do badly, while I concentrate on doing the things that I do well. All I need to do is give them some of the money I make for doing my stuff well and they’ll come right over and do their stuff well.

It’s like magic.

The division of labor means that I can do the things I want and like to do — like making jam, and reading to my kids, and planting a vegetable garden, and writing columns for FEE.org, and lecturing about economics and literature, and working for Liberty Fund — and avoid the things I don’t want to do, like cleaning bathrooms and killing bugs.

Before specialization, I would have had to be my own lawn guy, my own housecleaner, and my own terrified hornet removal guy. 

I’ve been talking about the way we outsource service jobs we don’t want to do, mostly because I’m still jittery about that hornet’s nest. But every time I buy socks for my kids, the division of labor is sparing me from having to knit them every pair of socks they wear. I can put that time and effort into knitting them sweaters (which is more fun than knitting socks) or taking martial arts classes with them, or whatever else we’d like to do. The time and effort I would have been forced to give to jobs I hate and do poorly can now be spent getting better at jobs I do well.

And the division of labor works all the way down the line. Anyone who doesn’t produce all their own everything is benefiting from the power of the division of labor. The kid who mows my lawn doesn’t have to make his own pizza because he specializes (for the moment) in mowing lawns. My housecleaner doesn’t have to fix her own car because she specializes in something she’s more interested in — making other people’s homes cleaner and more organized. The division of labor means that all of us are better than any of us.

And none of that makes us stupid. It allows us to decide how we spend our time and our energy. It makes us more free.

 

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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