Clarity Needed On Smith's Approach to the Division of Labour
“A major theme in libertarian discourse is the elevation of the market as a hallmark of human progress. In a three-part video series titled “Trade is Made of Win,” Learn Liberty extols the benefits of the division of labor, not only for its ability to generate wealth, but also for its ability to enhance cooperation among individuals and conserve natural resources. Many libertarians believe that man is homo economicus, and as a result, rational calculation, efficiency, and operating on the bases of utility receive much attention and esteem within libertarian rhetoric. If progress is a worthy goal of society, then a sophisticated market economy is a necessary component to achieving its success. Humans “win” when we economize, and economization more often than not involves materiality – goods and services, capital and production, tangible realities that create affluence. The game of progress, then, can be measured by who has the biggest pile of stuff. …
… Adam Smith acclaimed the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations as his famous pin factory example illustrates. But far from extolling only the good that this division of labor provides materially, Smith questioned its effect on the interior soul of man. As Smith analyzed various economic modes of history, he praised agrarian, pre-commercial society because it could stimulate the minds of individuals better than a division of labor: “Invention is kept alive, and the mind is not suffered to fall into that drowsy stupidity which, in a civilized society, seems to benumb the understanding of almost all the inferior ranks of people.” He continued his critique on market society:
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 the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two…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…naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become…The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind.”
Now, one must remember that Smith was writing in the 1770s, and “stupid” was not a pejorative in the way used today. What Smith was saying is that a market in which people only work in mechanized ways can dull the mind into a stupor and corrupt what otherwise would be a thoughtful, sentimental life - the necessarily inventive life of premodernism – into a life of monotony.
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, Joseof Pieper, described the fundamental importance leisure played to human well-being historically. …
perception of idle time, leisure is a deeply spiritual and affirmative human tradition that stood in opposition to “useful work” as a means constructed towards an end. Pieper admonished that “the cultus, now as in the distant past, is the primary source of man’s freedom, independence, and immunity within society. Suppress that last sphere of freedom, and freedom itself, and all our liberties, will in the end vanish into thin air.”
James Padilioni has written a thoughtful article. I have some reservations about some of it, especially in relation to Adam Smith.
It is half-a-step too far to say that that the “elevation of the market [is] a hallmark of human progress”.
The market is certainly the latest step in a long line of steps, not all them necessarily moving in the same direction, as if human societies always get “better” in some sense, from when mankind lived and survived in the forest and plains of the habited planet had a “better” life.
Humanity has experienced many forms and variations of ensuring its livelihood across all human societies from 200 millennia ago. There is no ordained progression from one “lower” to another “higher” form of livelihood, especially in the sense that whatever happens later and differently is necessarily a “progression” or an improvement. Smith implies that there are many “vales of tears” endured by some human societies, especially from some of the “vile” rulers of mankind. Smith said there had been different broad “Ages of Man” throughout pre-history and history: hunting, shepherding, farming, and commerce.
It is also obvious that the “Age of Commerce” can be associated with many forms of markets; indeed, pure markets have never existed, each market society is sui generis. Moreover, markets since Smith’s day varied across Europe and have changed since then, displaying a great deal of different forms and degrees since he focused his critique on mercantile political economy. Commerce operated both from developing within and alongside various forms of farming tenure, and even through quite different forms in Asian and European experience.
Development is uneven. Markets are no exception. That is why numerous exponents of grand plans to reform markets that are offered from time to time on the Internet and in various media are somewhat utopian (and a few are quite delusionary) because they assume that completely new forms of market organization can be designed and introduced, supposedly by the better intentions of their designers. I have commented negatively on several on Lost Legacy.
So whether the “elevation of the market [is] a hallmark of human progress” is something unique or but an instance in the constantly changing evolution of market organisation is open to question.
Next, I am profoundly unimpressed with James Padilioni’s assertion, if true”, that ‘Many libertarians believe that man is homo economicus, and as a result, rational calculation, efficiency, and operating on the bases of utility receive much attention and esteem within libertarian rhetoric.” Whatever the basis of the assertion in respect of “libertarians” it is definitely not true of Adam Smith in truth or even rhetorically despite occasional claims to the contrary. I am a moderate libertarian in Smith’s sense but I have no illusions that individuals are motivated by “rational expectations” (what Deirdre McCloskey calls “Max U” theorising) and such an approach is not supported in Smith’s Works.
Contrary to the interpretation of the part quotation from Smith’s Wealth Of Nations (WN V.i.f.50: 781-2) given above, James Padilioni asserts that” far from extolling only the good that this division of labor provides materially, Smith questioned its effect on the interior soul of man” and it was his “critique on market society”. We have discussed this theme of the dulling affects of the division of labour many times on Lost Legacy – as recently as last week – and I have always insisted that we should read Smith’s words in relation to the subject of the chapter in WN from where Smith makes the case of government action in respect of the education of youth, which he argued was in a deplorable condition in England (but less so in Scotland), and not the usual explanation of what he meant (see my posts on “Chomsky”). Smith had some reservations that were solely about the division of labour among actual illiterate, unread, and innumerate recruits to the labour force and the effects of these deficiencies, and it was not a call for governments to intervene in the division of labour so much as for their intervention by legislating for investment in the education of the workforce to prevent the dangerous affects of ignorance.
The widespread lack of education of the children of labouring families meant they were serially ignorant to the prey of those advocating wild ideas as “enthusiasts” and agitators that threatened social stability. His book was read by the educated and upper class families and those reading it would be alarmed at the potential threat to their lives and property unless they subscribed to the educational reform to spread the socially stabilising affects to prevent the further stunting of the ignorant lives of those employed in these emerging modern industries.
James Padilioni closes with “Premodern man danced, and made merry, and in the process formed community”, complete with a merry, coloured painting of country folk dancing and being merry. Many authors use such themes of merry folk dancing round May poles with explicit themes that contrasts with town folk lined up and slaving over banks of machines in the “dark satanic mills” of industrial capitalism. This of course can give the impression of a once happy labouring population employed joyously on the land but driven by poverty into smelly, crowded towns. I suspect that such images are loaded with naivety about the realities of farming life throughout history for serfs, slaves, debt ridden peasantry, and country-folk across the world, then and today, over much of the pre-market millennia.