Friday, September 21, 2007

Did Adam Smith 'Denounce' the Division Of Labour?

From Civilisation (fanatics centre), Civilisation IV: ‘Beyond the Sword’, a sort of gaming website with some interesting forums and occasional ‘off topic’ posting, (here) I came across this contribution from ‘Princeps’:

While I've read some of Adam Smith's Wealth of nations, I haven't quite gotten to a good start.

But, apparently, in page 340 of book five, he writes that...

"In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. 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 to become for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging..."

Basically, Adam Smith denounced division of labour (or its effects) rather harshly, which is quite strange given how he's worshipped. Maybe the mainstream intellects get sleepy even before reaching this part, I know I got bored trying to find it.”

Princeps’ ‘got bored trying to find’ Adam Smith’s quotation. Unfortunately that is how the majority of people acquaint themselves with Adam Smith’s writings, including top tutors in economics.

Most do not read his books through and nor do they appreciate what each book was about in its context. This means that they miss out a great deal of what Smith was doing. It’s a bit like reading a novel, not having grasped the characters and their situations and not really being aware of where they are or what they are doing.

In Adam Smith’s day, workshops were not remotely like modern manufacturing processes. There was hardly any power driven machinery, excepting windmills, water mills, a few Necomen steam engines for pumping water out of coalmines. The bulk of ‘manufacturing’ was by hand labour, and such machines as existed ‘augmented’ labour and did not substitute for it.

The famous pin factory was a hand driven work processes (18 of them in his example) which reduced each man’s labour to small steps, thus raising their productivity. Instead of a few pins a day, their output was raised to thousands.

But the division of labour was far more extensive than the pin factory; a little further on in the chapter (WN I.i) you find Smith describing the manufacture of a common labourer’s woollen coat and all the elements that went together to produce this item, most of them disconnected in location, including overseas for dyes, and all of them constituting distinct markets for their products and the trades they employed. Raw wool required farmers and flocks of sheep, metal scissors from a forge, from ore in the ground, and so on. This is as much a part of the division of labour as the boys working in the pin factory.

Adam Smith regarded the division of labour as the driving force for economic development when people stopped doing everything for themselves (and doing without everything they could not make for themselves), which in ‘rude’ society meant they were in abject and permanent poverty, with life spans of fewer than 30 years. This is covered in the first few chapter of Book I of Wealth Of Nations. If you haven’t read it yourself, do so now on one of the many copies of Wealth Of Nations available free on the Internet (Google for it).

Princeps has jumped from Book I to Book V and taken his quotation from the latter without explaining what Smith was doing warning about the deleterious effects on labourers who only work at single tasks for their working lives.

In Book V, Adam Smith is talking about the need for Britain to invest in education, especially of the young who at that time were often exposed to only a few years at school (to age 8 years), or not taught at all (girls were taught at home, did not go to school and certainly did not go to university). In Scotland, where Smith lived, a system of parish schools had been introduced in the 17th century where, in every parish, schools were open to boys to learn arithmetic, writing and reading, and some Latin, which if they showed promise they could be sent to university at aged 14, irrespective of their family circumstances and lack of finance. Most labourers were literate to a low standard, but not so in England.

To set up a national (UK) education system of a ‘little school’ in every parish, to pay for the buildings and pay the teachers (who would teach every class together), would cost money and this could only come from the taxes on the rich (the majority of people were poor and on basic subsistence). Wealth Of Nations was written for the literate people, mostly rich, who influenced government, or were members of it. Government in 18th century Britain was based on a very small franchise (Smith did not have a vote).

Therefore, as part of his persuasion of readers to support a national education system, to which their taxes would pay, supplemented by small contributions from parents, excepting the indigent very poor who could not afford even a penny, he had to give his readers good reasons for doing so, if they were not persuaded on moral grounds.

For this reason he wrote the paragraph quoted, and others, to appeal to their political interests and concerns, specifically their fears of rebellion. Remember, there had been the Scotch rebellions of 1715 and 1745, wars with France (the seven-years war) and, coinciding with the publication of Wealth Of Nations (1776), the American rebellion, resulting in American Independence. Also, in the 1790s, the French revolution caused severe fright among British aristocrats, which highlighted Smith’s points.

He specifically draws attention to problems of ignorance made worse by single focus daily work, and the dangers of ignorant people being misled into rebellion by agitators. These were real fears of people among his readers (but not shared by him). He suggests that for a small amount these schools would educate children and enable them to resist misleading ideas. Hence, to make his case, he laid on the rhetoric pretty thickly in Book V.

Incidentally, once power-driven machinery was introduced in the 19th century, which replaced many tasks of labour, the process of reducing the number of pin factories and the labour employed in them progressed to the extent that by the 20th century, there were two pin factories in Britain instead of hundreds, and each machine operated by one person did all of the steps previously undertaken by 18 men, such that by today the world’s pin supplies are made in a handful of factories. But remember, many labourers made the pin machines via the division of labour.


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