Divided We Fall

May 29, 2009 at 4:18 pm (By Maxwell James)

The recent conversation on self-sufficiency got me thinking about the division of labor in society. At least since Adam Smith, it has been taken for granted that an increasing division of labor is a net positive – it leads to increasing specialization, productivity, and hence wealth for all. Even Marx did not really question this argument – his theory of alienation challenged it somewhat, but he never proposed that a society with decreasing division of labor would be superior.

Because of that, it’s been striking to me how much of the ambiance of this blog has circulated around issues of self-sufficiency. If the division of labor in a society continually increases, it follows that self-sufficiency will continually decrease. More and more work that might have been done on an individual basis gets “outsourced” to firms that can do it faster, better, cheaper, and individuals therefore focus their lives on a narrower and narrower range of tasks.

Is it possible that we’ve arrived at a point where there is now too much division of labor? If so, how could we remedy that?

~ Maxwell


  1. wj said,

    It might help to distinguish between efficiency considerations, which are promoted by division of labor, and psychological considerations, which are promoted by the ability to do many different things.

    There is no real question but what you end up with more total goods and services to share if everybody does those things that they do relatively better. But it makes you feel better about yourself if you know that you are capable of doing lots of different things, even if you do not actually do them most of the time. (It also lowers your risk, in case transport and communications are disrupted.)

    The two are not, however, necessarily in conflict. They conflict if you insist on doing yourself everything that you know how to do. However if you simply know how, but don’t feel compelled to do so (absent an actual need), then they do not conflict at all. For example, I know how to start from a pile of fabric and sew a shirt (or a tail coat; or even a dress — amazingly enough for a guy). And having done so in the past, I know that I can if necessary. But pretty much all of my clothes are bought from companies which specialize in such things. So I’ve got the best of both worlds there.

    Similarly with lots and lots of other tasks. I would say that, if you have no clue how to do anything beyond the very narrow specialized task that you do to earn a living, then you have a problem. But the problem is not too much division of labor; it’s too little breadth of knowledge and too few skills. The good news is, we don’t have to abandon the efficiency benefits of division of labor to solve the problem. All we have to do is choose to learn something new occasionally. (I do realize that there are those, perhaps even a large number of them, who hate the very thought that they might have to learn anything new after the age of 18. Fortunately, none of us who hang out here seem to be of that mindset.)

  2. Rod said,

    Self sufficiency is an illusion. We all enter the world utterly dependent and, if we live long enough, leave the world nearly so. Even at our physical and mental peaks, very few of us could survive entirely on our own, completely without food, clothing, or shelter provided by others. For those few who could do it, life would still be much harder. Life would be, as Hobbes observed, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

    We are tied to society. So, life becomes and endless string of bargains with others, good or bad, explicit or implicit. But since we each exist in a physical shell that does not actually experience hunger if somebody else doesn’t eat, or physical pain if somebody else is in a car wreck, we learn the most important survival skill – how to manipulate each other. In a complex society, self sufficiency becomes the ability to ensure the services of others.

  3. Ennui said,

    It seems like there are two different questions here regarding self sufficiency (at least in my mind). One is, if society came to a halt could I make it on my own (ala Castaway or “The Road”). The second is, if, say, the power grid shut down could I, along with everyone within shouting distance, make it through (ala the Jericho television series). I agree with Rod that survival in the first case would require a miracle of sorts. Survival in the second case seems possible. It just requires that, in general, basic skills are distributed widely enough that, in any group of a thousand or so people, all the major bases are covered. I think that’s entirely possible right now in most parts of America. Of the people I deal with on a daily basis, I can think of several I would trust to fix an old generator if they had do. Several who could rebuild an engine from cast off parts, if they had to. Several who could twist some wires, if they had to. Several from a farming background, etc. etc.

    So, if it’s a question of “can I survive a “The Road” scenario?,” well that’s questionable at best. On the other hand, if the question is “Can we (pick your number) survive if the trucks stop coming and the power stops flowing” I’m going to bet yes. Prosper? No. Survive? Yes.

    That was, to me, one of the most disheartening things about the Katrina debacle – not only that the relief efforts were so feckless but that outside relief efforts were so necessary. Although the Katrina victims certainly weren’t the C.H.U.D. like creatures they were painted to be by the media at the time, their own response wasn’t exactly inspiring.

  4. Maxwell said,

    Perhaps “self-sufficiency” is not the right term for what I’m getting at. As in Ennui’s second definition, what really concerns me is the ability of communities to sustain themselves, and the possibility that we may have “outsourced” too many critical responsibilities and/or skills in that regard.

    For example: the dominance in our governments – even on the local level – of career politicians and civil servants can be seen as a result of increasing division of labor (as is true for pretty much all other professions). Governing may be a “soft” skill, but it is a critical one that many people abstain from entirely. There may be some measure of added efficiency by outsourcing governance to the “experts,” but at what cost?

    That’s an extreme example, of course, and controversial besides. But a similar argument can be made about finance, education, even medicine. How much do we lose by ceding every industry to experts?

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