Thursday, August 14, 2014

Is the Division of Labor a Form of Enslavement?

The idea that an economy functions through a division of labor, in which we each focus and specialize in certain tasks and then participate in a market to obtain the goods and services we want to consume, is fundamental to economic analysis. Indeed, the very first chapter of Adam Smith's 1776 classic The Wealth of Nations is titled "Of the Division of Labor," and offers the famous example of how dividing up the tasks involved in making a pin is what makes a pin factory so much more productive than an individual who is making pins.

But what if the division of labor, with its emphasis on focusing on a particular narrow job, runs fundamentally counter to something in the human spirit? Karl Marx raised this possibility in The German Ideology (1846 Section 1, "Idealism and Materialism," subsection on "Private Property and Communism"). Marx wrote:

“Further, the division of labor implies the contradiction between the interest of the separate individual or the individual family and the communal interest of all individuals who have intercourse with one another. … The division of labor offers us the first example of how, as long as man remains in natural society, that is, as long as a cleavage exists between the particular and the common interest, as long, therefore, as activity is not voluntarily, but naturally, divided, man's own deed becomes an alien power opposed to him, which enslaves him instead of being controlled by him. For as soon as the distribution of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a shepherd, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticism after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter fisherman, shepherd or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
Like so much of Marx's writing, this passage seems to me to give voice to a difficult concept that contains a substantial slice of truth; indeed, I had this quotation up on my office door for a time. But also like a lot of Marx, it seems to ignore or evade counterbalancing arguments.

I suspect we all know people who at times feel trapped by the division of labor. I can think offhand of several friends who aren't happy being lawyers, and a doctor who would have preferred not to become a doctor. When you're grinding out the quarterly reports or the semi-required stint of overtime, it's easy to feel trapped by the narrowness of the job.

But on the other side, the division of labor contains within it an opportunity to learn and specialize--to be the expert in your own field of study. This matters to me both as a consumer and as a worker. As a consumer, I don't want the noontime appointment with a doctor who was a shepherd this morning, a social critic this afternoon, and is planning to try a different set of jobs tomorrow. I want a doctor who works hard at being a doctor. I also want a car made by workers who have experience in their jobs, an and I want to drive that car across bridges designed by engineers who spend their working time focused on engineering. As a consumer, I like dealing with goods and services produced by specialists.

As a worker, being stuck in one narrow occupation may feel like a trap. But fluttering from job to job can be is a trap of a different kind--a trap of a string of shallow experiences. I don't mean to knock shallow experience: there are a lot of things worth trying only once, or maybe a few times. But you can't get 10 years of experience at any job if you switch jobs every year, or in Marx's illustration, several times per day. There's probably a happy medium here of finding some variation in one's tasks and building expertise in different areas, both in work and in hobbies, over a lifetime. But to me, Marx's advice sounds like telling an ADHD worker to "find your bliss," and then watching that person flit like a butterfly on amphetamines.

Marx's challenge to the division of labor also sidesteps some practical issues. His  implication seems to be that what you choose to do as a worker can be detached from what society needs. It's not clear what a society does if on a given day, not enough people feel like showing up to be garbagemen or day care providers that day. Markets and pay and defined jobs are a mechanism of coordinating what is produced and consumed, and also for allowing that mechanism to evolve over time according to the range of jobs that people want to do as providers (given a certain wage) and the goods and services that people want in their economic role as consumers.

The division of labor can be constraining, but another fundamental principal of economics is that all choices involve giving up an opportunity to do something else. A world without a division of labor would just be constraining in a different and arguably less attractive way. If you would like some additional ruminations on moral issues surrounding labor markets, one starting point is this blog from last month, "Are Labor Markets Exploitative?"