Simple Liberty  



Reflections From The Front Porch

The Division of Labor

Written by Darrell Anderson.

As an individual who advocates free and voluntary relationships, I naturally advocate free and voluntary exchange. Exchange is a mechanism through which each individual attempts to improve life and creature comforts, as well as supply basic needs.

There can be little denial that specialization of skills and labor tends to improve the exchange process. Generally, specialization tends to create a division of labor. The division of labor tends to further facilitate exchange and tends to further improve living conditions. The quality of living standards in the western world seems to validate that simple thought process. History indicates that although self-sufficiency is admired as an individual characteristic, living in such a manner dramatically reduces the standard of living.

Yet, some people argue that despite these apparent gains, there is a dark side to a high division of labor. A high division of labor tends to alienate people and splinter community relationships. A high division of labor tends to create a one-sided labor market because as skills specialize, workers are limited in where they can exchange those skills. Some people argue that this natural limitation tends to create master-slave relationships, with employers in the better bargaining position.

A high division of labor creates a high specialization in tools and technology. Thus, some people have argued that the huge swing toward technology has compounded problems as much as alleviate. As technology improves, so does the general dependence upon technology. As technology becomes more complicated, so does a general emphasis for efficiency. As this drive toward efficiency progresses, dependency on that technology increases further, thereby tending to emphasize a slave relationship for many people. Instead of being a tool for improving human living conditions, technology appears to be enslaving all. Thus, opponents argue, almost everybody exposed to technology is forced to adapt and learn how to use and understand these new tools. Stress continues to rise almost astronomically.

Furthermore, technology and a high division of labor not only means a higher dependency on technology and specialized skills, but also a higher dependency upon other people; further exasperating the master-slave mentality.

There seems to be a thread of sensibility for some of these arguments. All any individual need do is look around and realize that the benefits are many but everybody lives in a complicated technological world. What used to be a normal Saturday for many independent and self-sufficient people — simple automotive tune-ups and maintenance — is now typically a $300 repair bill requiring sophisticated electronic analysis tools. Consider too how many VCR clocks still blink rather than indicate the correct time.

Few people would deny the benefits that technology and a high division of labor have provided humanity. Improved health, less manual labor to provide basic needs, and increased life spans. Although an argument might be made that people today might be living off the labor of others, the benefits seem enormous. Only a short time ago in history, royalty lived off the labor of many people, yet they had few of the creature comforts taken for granted today. Refrigeration, air conditioning, transportation, better health all contribute to a better standard of living for many instead of a few. Royalty might have seemed to benefit, but poorer health, disease and shorter life spans easily counters such arguments. Yet, opponents argue, although the benefits seem high, the trade-offs seem high too. Thus, many people argue for a need to retract the progress of technology.

Proponents of free enterprise and basic property rights tend to reject concerns over too much technology and a high division of labor. After all, every individual is free to develop new skill sets and is free not to contract. Certainly those arguments are plausible. Of course, for an individual not to contract means that an individual needs to be more self-sufficient than other people.

Proponents of technology argue that although technology has invaded the life of every individual, every individual is free to use or not use the technology. Mom and Dad buy a clothes washer and dryer providing them both more additional time to perform other productive work or provide more leisure time. Both have decided that the market exchange value of the new technology more than outweighs the cost of doing laundry by hand and the lost productive or leisure time. Both probably believe so even if the initial funds are borrowed and interest charges accrue. Thus, they knowingly and willingly “enslaved” themselves. Yet, since the acts were voluntary, there can be no true “enslavement.” That would be a contradiction of terms.

Nonetheless, technology opponents seem to have a point. That $300 automobile repair bill hits the pocket hard. However, market proponents are quick to notice that despite that high one-time cost, the overall cost of maintaining an automobile are reduced compared to early models. Automobiles tend to last longer and generally are more reliable. Who can argue against this mode of transportation considering the incredible flexibility, mobility, and independence automobiles provide?

Opponents argue that technology tends to alienate relationships and splinter communities. Yet, proponents notice that the high tech world of the Internet has created uncountable virtual communities around the globe. Although such communities do not provide people the opportunity to physically meet and interact, such avenues nonetheless are making this world a smaller place than ever before in history.

People who are accustomed to studying all elements of a debate know that more often than not, the truth lies somewhere in between the extremes offered in any debate. Thus, is a high division of labor a good thing or bad? Careful students likely would respond that the answer probably is a little of both. My own response is mostly good, a little bad.

Consider how desktop computers have enriched the lives of many people. Computers certainly have helped me become more productive. Yet, although I have been around computers for more than two decades and I have witnessed tremendous improvements, I still believe that overall computers are user-hostile and not user-friendly. Thus, overall I’d say computer technology is good, but add a little bad too.

For another example, I greatly dislike having computers in my pick-up truck. With such technology I am limited in how much maintenance I am able to perform compared to 20 years ago. On the other hand, there is no way in the world you could convince me that my chain saw should be discarded in favor of axes and crosscut saws. With my chain saw I can cut 8 full cords of woods in a relatively short time compared to the old method. Thus, I could easily argue that the time I save cutting firewood probably pays for my miscellaneous automotive repair bills.

Yet, there are other benefits not easily entered into the ledger books. I enjoy my time outside and the exercise of cutting firewood. I enjoy being in the woods. I also enjoy being able to heat my home for the approximate annual cost of $25 for gas, oil, and chain sharpening. Yes, I spend a lot of time in the woods instead of behind a desk “earning a living,” but for me the benefits of being in the woods are greater. In this example, technology is good.

Although capable of performing automotive repairs — I prefer not to. I do basic maintenance, but I’m not a motorhead. However, I do enjoy cutting wood and the physical work, not to mention the incredibly low heating bills. Is technology and a high division of labor good or bad? I would argue that the answer depends upon each and every individual. After all, everybody is a creature of free will and is free to choose. Some decisions that each individual makes undoubtedly leads to a high dependency that could be viewed as a “slave” relationship. However, I doubt many people would want to forsake technology and live as their ancestors did only several generations ago.

The pace at which new technology is being introduced undoubtedly is stressful for many people. I will not argue against that. Thus, as much as I see overall benefits to a growing technological base, I do understand that one point of some Luddites. Perhaps everybody should reconsider that pace and perhaps somewhat retard the speed.

However, I perceive a wonderful benefit to the new global economy of dependency caused by a high division of labor. Peace. As more and more people become dependent upon other people around the globe for voluntary exchanges, fewer and fewer will want to create a hostile atmosphere when part of their own livelihood depends upon relationships on the other side of the world. Few people will want to send bombs and rockets to locations where their virtual friends live. People will want to beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. With virtual communities the concept of statism dies. People tend not to destroy the hand that feeds them.


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