Sunday, April 08, 2007

Yet More on Themes of the Error About the ‘Quantity of Work’

I can’t see why whoever advised the Bank of England arrives at the conclusion that the division of labour was about increasing the ‘great quantity of work’ and not about increasing labour productivity, and thereby a greater amount of output per unit of input, be it counted in units of labour or in costs.

That has got me thinking about the proposition printed on the £20 note, which I have commented upon on Lost Legacy for the past few days. The more I look at it the more inane the notion becomes.

I commented yesterday on Smith’s discussion of the statement in Chapter 1, Book I of Wealth Of Nations. Any thinking of Smith’s perspectives on society leads fairly quickly to his practice of taking the ‘long view’ of human history, which led me as quickly to think of ‘work’ and what role purposeful activity – which is what we mean by work – played in social evolution.

Animals work; they search for mates, they search for suitable places to nest, they search for food and they apply themselves (work) to achieve all these tasks. In between they ‘rest’ (‘don’t work’), amuse themselves and their kind, and play, including in the ‘courting’ game. The film, the ‘March of the Penguins’, shows considerable effort (work) put in by adult penguins to feed, march 70 miles into the interior for mating, guarding the precious eggs, and marching backwards and forwards. Much of the time they are also shuffling about in the midst of blizzards to keep themselves and the eggs warm.

Any examination of the lives of chimpanzees (from which common stock the hominids descended, and from a species of them, Homo sapiens descended) provides fairly detailed ‘diaries’ of their life-work balances. Gathering is a daily task for adults – females feed themselves and the children; males feed themselves. These activities constitutes ‘work’. A fair amount of discretionary time is spent in ‘not-working’, and in ‘grooming’, a sort of activity in-between work and not-work.

To the extent that grooming is discretionary, in the sense that individual chimps willingly groom some others, but not all, we have evidence of the emergence of reciprocation (what I have called the ‘quasi-bargain’ in my as yet unpublished manuscript of the ‘Pre-History of the Deal’). The evolution of reciprocation is closely related to the evolution of what Smith called the ‘propensity to truck, barter, and exchange’ in the human species, which was a prelude to the division of labour (Wealth Of Nations I.ii.1-4: pp25-29).

To suggest that the division of labour’s most significant outcome is the ‘quantity of work’, as is stated on the £20 Bank of England note, is questionable. A growing population of any species adds to the ‘quantity of work’, if only from more members of the species living within their ‘life-work’ balance, ‘increases the quantity of work’ done by that species, greatly if population growth is rapid, which is a conclusion empty of significance; it is the necessary arithmetic outcome of the laws of numbers.

A tribe of human hunters that finds food resources susceptible to their existing technology (inclusive of social organisation) will increase its population by reducing child mortality and increasing longevity. Growing populations are associated with increases in the ‘quantity of work’ – more people means more work and more ‘non-work’ undertaken because more people are doing both. If resources are depleted, more work must be undertaken to search and catch dwindling food resources. If somebody invents better tools, or improves current technologies, this too increases the ‘quantity of work’ on one (unimportant level) and it increases the quality of the work undertaken (the important level).

For long periods of a million years or so, stone technologies ‘stood still’ among the hominids. With the appearance of humans the progress in manufactured technologies and progress in farming techniques raised the ‘quantity of work’, but by far the greatest effect of changing technologies and associated social organisation (Smith’s ‘Ages of Man’ – hunting, shepherding, farming and commerce) has been the ‘great increase in the productivity of work’, or, if I may say so, ‘the great increase in the quality of work’, which is in consequence of, because it arises from, the division of labour.

Specialisation adds to the quantity of work if it increases population survival, including when tribes ‘split’ into different groups and separate, as they did for thousands of years after the exodus of some human from Africa 40,000 years ago, until the last great migration of humans from 11,000 years ago across the land bridge into the Americas.

Increases in the quantity of work have continued throughout human history. Slavery adds to the quantity of work (a most unsuitable justification for it!), but, as Smith pointed out, it reduces the quality of the work undertaken, and the life-spans of those whipped into submission.

Much of these quantitative increases and decreases from changing population levels have not been a result of changes in the division of labour. From the fall of Rome in the 5th century, technology in farming remained fairly steady for a millennium, but population varied from the vagaries of, first, the war lords and allodial land ownership (crudely, you owned what you could hold against all comers), and later of ‘feudal tenures’, both of which required a division of labour in the formation of special armed bands of 'retainers', who were engaged in the 'unproductive' work of wars, skirmishes, raids and ambushes, sometimes local, occasionally ‘national’ for what were called ‘kingdoms’; the winners ‘crowned’ themselves king.

In this millennium, the quantity of ‘work’ was occasionally increased, but living standards remained at or below subsistence, and plagues wiped out whole swathes of population. When economies contracted, the quantity of work declined, especially of the productive kind that led to net growth.

With the revival of settled ‘kingdoms’, a slow and gradual, steady though small rise in populations, the reappearance of commerce, new insights into science, including applications in technology, food production rises to feed more people, at subsistence in per capita terms. The quantity of work increased, notably from the Elizabethan period onwards, with state induced support for certain easy to grow and harvest crops and other interventions (See Joan Thirsk, Economics Policy and Projects, 1978, Clarendon Press; W. Cunnigham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce, [1892] 4 Vols. Cambridge University Press).

The long-run change was unprecedented historically, once it became qualitative in terms of labour productivity (not merely quantitative in which nothing really changes – China surpassed the world even then in quantitative terms in population size of a 100 million plus, and therefore the biggest in the world in the quantity of work undertaken by its people – it was also stagnant economically without significant changes in technology or organisation and, therefore, in its divisions of labour).

All these thoughts lead me to object to the selection of a quantitative indicator of the effect of the division of labour.


Blogger nemo said...

How do you propose to use qualitative indicators for the division of labour?
Surely quantitative indicators are more fruitfully measurable?
Qualitative indicators lack reliability.

3:34 pm  
Blogger Gavin Kennedy said...

Thanks Nemo for your comment.

Think carefully about your proposition (even if its were true).

If you accept that a quality indicator is appropriate, but there are technical problems in measuring it quantitatively, and conclude that it is better to use a quantitative indicator (any one?) which is easier to measure but means nothing, is that appropriate for a science?

It’s like that old joke about the drunk looking for his wallet under a nearby streetlamp because it is easier to see there than to look in the darker alley where he probably dropped it when he fell over while relieving himself.

The appropriate measure in this case, I think, would be to measure the outputs of factories with increased divisions of labour (later with automation).

A division of labour increases the quality of work shown in increased productivity per worker (quality), not the number of workers (quantity). This last, as professor Mike Munger shows, has fallen dramatically in the hundred years since Wealth Of Nations (see earlier posts on Lost Legacy since Friday, and in the EcononLib at:

On ‘fruitful grounds I would go for quality as measured by rates of change in productivity (output per worker per time period) and not ‘quantity of work’ (whatever that actually means).

I hope we can agree on that.

9:28 pm  

Post a Comment

<< Home