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Sunday, April 19, 2020 Leer en Español

Without Division of Labor, There’s No Way We Could Make It through COVID-19

Crises like the coronavirus reveal the true extent and scope of the division of labor.

Image credit: Bernd Dittrich on Unsplash

COVID-19 needs no introduction. Over the last few months, it has proved to be inescapable. It has affected schools, businesses, and of course, the news cycle. Many states have now issued “shelter-in-place” orders or something very similar in substance, which has relegated everyone to their homes. Any businesses that have been labeled “non-essential” have been closed down. Many other businesses have closed down voluntarily from a lack of customers.

Combined with measures such as “social distancing,” many of us have been spending much more time at our homes than usual. Even so, as we distance ourselves from the outside world, we are completely dependent upon it.

After all, very few people have the capability to grow their own food and retrieve their own water. Even while trying to avoid all contact with the outside world, we all still need to buy food, whether at the store or online. The large majority of us cannot make our own clothes, so we must get them elsewhere as well. The internet connection you are using to read this right now is also coming from the external world.

Regardless of any desire to avoid contact with the outside world, we are still dependent upon the outside world. It seems almost inescapable. In today’s age, each household in society has a curious dependence upon others.

It is in times of crisis like this that show the true extent and scope of the division of labor. The division of labor means, put simply, that each individual in society has a particular job or occupation, as opposed to being completely self-sufficient. This allows for society to take advantage of each individual’s respective talents and abilities. Einstein would have been a terrible farmer relative to his scientific abilities. Without the division of labor, however, his musings would have been exclusively directed toward next year’s crop yield, as opposed to science.

In ages past, before the emergence of the division of labor, our ancestors lived their lives at a subsistence level. Each individual or tribe had to constantly ensure their own survival. The mere existence of others was a threat, as their consumption of wild game limited your own. As such, there was little social cooperation in this cruel world.

Under these conditions, life followed the words of Hobbes: “nasty, brutish, and short.” However, once the division of labor started to emerge, the living standards of all in society started to rise. As opposed to being a threat, the existence of others meant that one could take advantage of their skills through trade and commerce. Widespread social cooperation, once unthinkable, was now the norm.

As time goes on and countries become wealthier, the division of labor can branch beyond industries and occupations that are necessary for survival. In 1800, the percentage of the United States labor force working in agriculture was 73.7 percent. By 1960, it was down to 8.1 percent. The labor released from these necessary industries is then employed for the creation of goods not essential for survival. It is these luxury and consumer goods that grant us the relative comforts of the modern age.

When the division of labor expands to cover more and more industries, the occupations become more and more specialized. The production of many of the goods we enjoy today have long and extensive production processes. This means that many of the laborers working on the product are specialized in areas that are nowhere near the final product!

It was the coordination under this specialization that led Leonard Reed to write his famous essay, “I, Pencil”. His point was that no one knows how to make a pencil. At first this may sound absurd, as a pencil is a fairly simple product. However, there is much more to making a pencil than knowing how a pencil, in theory, is assembled.

To truly know how to create a pencil, one must know what materials are optimal to use, as well as where they are found. One must also know how to shape and craft the material, as well as the optimal place to build these factories. Also, how is the material to be best transported from one place to the next for the final product to be assembled. The requisite knowledge goes on and on.

This entire process or coordination is not undertaken by a central authority, but happens spontaneously. Although all of this knowledge is specialized under the division of labor, it is diverse social cooperation that allows for it to come together to create a pencil. Each individual comes together, not out the will of any one person, and creates what none of them could do alone.

This brings us back to today, and the current coronavirus pandemic. Although it is a constant feature of our lives, we often give little thought to the division of labor that has so profoundly influenced all of our lives. That is, until a time of crisis reveals to us the importance it has.

The importance of the division of labor cannot be overstated. Without it, mankind would have never arisen from the depths of absolute poverty to the riches we enjoy today. During this time of crisis, we rely on it more than ever. The end of the current pandemic has not yet come, but the ultimate force that will sustain us through to the end is the social cooperation under the division of labor that undergirds our society.

  • JW Rich is a economics student in Charlotte, NC. His interests are economics, history of economic thought, and philosophy. You can read his work here.