Friday, November 14, 2008

Early Islamic Scholars on the Division of Labour

A scholarly article in the Journal of Institutional Economics, 2008, vol 4: 3, pp 403-413, ‘Nasir ad Din Tusi on social co-operation and the division of labour: fragment from The Nasirean Ethics’ by Guang-Zhen Sun (Monash University, Victoria, Australia) contains interesting material on a neglected part of the history of scientific endeavour:

In particular, al-Ghazali (1058-1111), ‘unquestionably the greatest theologian of Islam and one of its noblest and most original thinkers’ (Hitti, Philip K. 2002: 431 [History of the Arabs, 10th edition, Palgrave Macmillan, New York]), makes some observations of the vertical division of labour that strikingly resemble Adam Smith’s in an interesting manner. In his most important book, Ihya Ulum al-Din (Revivification of the Sciences of Religion), al-Ghazali wrote:

For a bread, for example, first the farmer prepares and cultivates the land, then the bullock and tools needed to plough the land. Then the land is irrigated. It is cleared from weeds, then the crop is harvested and grains are cleaned and separated. Then there is milling into flour before baking. Just imagine – how many tasks are involved; and we here mention just only some. And imagine the number of people performing these various tasks, and the number of various kinds of tools, made from iron, woods, stone, etc. If one enquires, one will find that perhaps a single loaf of bread takes its final shape with the help of perhaps more than a thousand workers.
’ (Ihya, 4:118; quoted in Ghazanfar and Illahi, 1990: 390; 'Economic Thought of an Arab Scholastic: Aby Hamid al-Ghazali, 1058-1111', History of Political Economy, vol. 22: 381-403)

In further articulating the gains from, and necessary coordination in, the manufacturing division of labour, al-Ghazili took need production as an example, ‘even the small needle becomes useful only after passing through the hands of needle-makers about twenty-five times, each time going through a different process. As it happens, al-Ghazali’s needle example well resembles, over a ‘great gap’ in time as Schumpeter may tend to call, the French Encyclopédie’s ‘Epingle’ (1750s) production (consisting of eighteen separate processes), from which Smith’s famous pin-factory story was taken (cf. Edwin Canaan’s footnote 4 on page 8 in Smith 1776/1950). Does there really make much of a difference between the 25-stage needle production and the 18-stage pin production, the prototype of the division of labour principle due to the great influence of Smith’s (1776) justly celebrated system of economic analysis, so far as the division of labour is concerned?”

The notion of the ‘Great Gap’ in science between the 7th and the 13th centuries was due to Schumpeter’s assessment was published in his 1954 classic, History of Economic Analysis, pp 73-74 Allen & Unwin, London (edited from the unfinished manuscript by his wife, Elizabeth Boody Schumpeter). The information in the article eliminates Schumpeter’s assessment, or at least confines it to European experience only.

Edwin Canaan’s footnote in the 1937 edition, p 5, of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, that is referred to above reads [the reference to ‘Adam Smith’s Lectures, p 164’ is to Edwin Canaan’s 1896 ‘Lectures on Justice, Police, Revenues and Arms. Delivered in the University of Glasgow by Adam Smith reported by a student in 1763, Clarendon press, Oxford; also known as ‘LJ(B) 1978’):

In Adam Smith’s Lectures, p 164, the business is, as here, divided into eighteen operations. This number is doubtless taken from the Enclyopédie tom. V. (published in 1755), s.v. Épingle. The article is ascribed to M. Delaire, ‘qui décrivait la fabrication d l’épingle dans les ateliers même des ouvriers’, p 807. In some factories the division was carried further, E. Chambers, Cyclopœ dia, vol ii, 2nd edition., 1738, and 4th ed., 1741, s.v. Pin. makes the number of operations twenty-five.’

This corresponds to the 25 operations mentioned by al-Ghazali. There is a full examination of Adam Smith’s use of sources in the pin making in J.-L. Peaucelle, 2006. ‘Adam Smith’s use of multiple references for his pin-making examples’, European Journal of the History of Economic Thought, 13:4: 480-512.

There was also some controversy on Lost Legacy in January 2008 between myself and Tim Harford over whether Adam Smith actually visited a pin factory or simply said he did. Harford remained convinced that Smith did not visit a pin factory, despite what Smith wrote in Wealth Of Nations:

I have seen a small manufactory of this kind where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations’ and they managed to produce ‘upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day’ or ‘four thousand eight hundred pins’ each (Canaan: Wealth Of Nations, I.i: p 5).

Perhaps the most significant aspect of al-Ghazali’s extract is in his bread making example and in his estimate that ‘a thousand workers’ may be involved in making a loaf of bread, and which is a significant indicator of the extent of the division of labour even in fairly simple agricultural societies.

This example corresponds to Smith’s example of the manufacture of a ‘coarse and rough’ ‘woollen coat’ for day labourers (WN I.i: p 11) and which he elaborates after drawing attention to the question of “How many different trades are employed in each branch of the linen and woollen manufactures, from the growers of the flax and the wool, to the bleachers and smoothers of the linen, or to the dyers and dressers of the cloth!”:

Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-labourer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day-labourer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labour of a great multitude of workmen. The shepherd, the sorter of the wool, the wool-comber or carder, the dyer, the scribbler, the spinner, the weaver, the fuller, the dresser, with many others, must all join their different arts in order to complete even this homely production. How many merchants and carriers, besides, must have been employed in transporting the materials from some of those workmen to others who often live in a very distant part of the country! how much commerce and navigation in particular, how many ship-builders, sailors, sail-makers, rope-makers, must have been employed in order to bring together the different drugs made use of by the dyer, which often come from the remotest corners of the world! What a variety of labour too is necessary in order to produce the tools of the meanest of those workmen! To say nothing of such complicated machines as the ship of the sailor, the mill of the fuller, or even the loom of the weaver, let us consider only what a variety of labour is requisite in order to form that very simple machine, the shears with which the shepherd clips the wool. The miner, the builder of the furnace for smelting the ore, the feller of the timber, the burner of the charcoal to be made use of in the smelting-house, the brick-maker, the brick-layer, the workmen who attend the furnace, the mill-wright, the forger, the smith, must all of them join their different arts in order to produce them.”

(WN I.i.p 11; it is similar wording to his lectures [LJ(A) vi 21-3: pp338-9; LJ(B) 211-13: p 489])

There are good reasons to believe that the extent of the division of labour through all the trades that co-operate (unintentionally) to produce the ‘necessaries, conveniences, and amusements of life’ for final consumption is of greater significance than localised divisions of labour in plants to economic growth and development. This aspect was picked up by Allyn Young in his seminal 1928 article in Economic Journal, which has done much to bring Adam Smith back into contention as the author of a more realistic growth theory than modern neoclassical models.

Thanks are due to Guang-Zhen Sun for his article that brings to the attention of readers a neglected early economic essay that has interesting things to say about the division of labour. As Smith notes in Wealth Of Nations the ‘trade of a pin maker’ is one in which ‘division of labour has been very often taken notice of” (thus disavowing any originality in his use of it), but I am fairly sure he was unaware of the contributions from Arabic and Persian predecessors in the 12th century.

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