Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Slip About the Division of Labour's Origins

"Andrew" contributes to a debate (13 August) in Swift Economics (HERE):

It is true, as Adam Smith noted back in 1776, the division of labor is recent, but that doesn’t mean there was no specialization whatsoever (see artisan guilds) or that nobody traded with each other and everyone lived self sufficient lives or in some sort of co-op. Pogroms were launched against Jews for charging interest on loans while Christians found ways to cheat the system and charge interest anyways. The silk road flourished. Venice and Florence became hotspots of commerce. Double entry accounting started in the 12th century and in the 16th century, the School of Salamanca came out with a theory of prices and interest. Hell, even chimpanzees have been shown to exchange reciprocal services.”


But did Adam Smith note “back in 1776, the division of labor is recent”? I think I can see why Andrew might conclude thus, given that the first instance of the division of labour in Wealth Of Nations is the famous pin factory example. If Andrew reads on a few pages he will find the less famous (but as important) example of the day labourer’s woolen coat which involves the divided labour of many dozens of people, including some in other continents.

Indeed, Smith’s description of the possessions of the conveniences of day labourers (at the bottom of the social pile) show quite a few items beyond the basic minimal subsistence and which were made elsewhere by other labourers.

Moreover, his description of the emergence of the division of labour were all of earlier ages (arrows for hunters in the first age of mankind (hunting) in distant pre-history and his other examples of early trade between the countryside and traders in foreign goods were deep in feudal times (in fact, diverting agricultural products to pay for them eventually undermined the local power of the feudal barons).

Andrew makes up for his slip about Smith with recognition of some of these earlier examples of the division of labour. Smith also acknowledged that he did not discover the division of labour, though every now and again someone reports that he was the first (alongside nonsense claims that he “invented” capitalism, though it was a word he did not use and did not know – it was first used in English in 1854).

Such slips come from not reading Adam Smith for yourself.



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