April 19th, 2009

The Dangers of Division of Labor

photo credit: Bnei B

Changing the oil in your car. Sewing your own clothes. Growing your own food. Building your own house. The list continues, full of things that the average American has no idea how to do. As society has progressed, specialization has increased. Through the division of labor, we focus our time and talent on a few niche capabilities, and then through barter and monetary exchange acquire the goods and services others produce that we lack.

This specialization of skill has resulted in a number of technological advances that otherwise would never have seen the light of day; generation of electricity, space exploration, automobile development, computer manufacturing, etc., would never have happened if nobody divided their labor, and we all, like families for millenia did, lived at the subsistence level. By creating a product or service in demand by others, we can offer the results of our labor in exchange for other items we need, for which we have no time to produce ourselves. Thus, the statistician can procure bread and clothing, and the plumber can have a place to live and a car to drive.

While a division of labor results in these and countless other advancements, it is not without its problems. When a society becomes accustomed to and dependent upon that division of labor, a worrisome risk is introduced of that system being threatened by any number of things. Any action to disrupt the fragile ecosystem upon which individuals have come to depend can quickly spell severe suffering at a minimum, and quite possibly death.

Think of a large earthquake, a terrorist attack, a trucker strike, or a power grid failure. Within a couple hours, grocery shelves are wiped out by people who lack the ability to provide food for themselves, and who have not previously stored sufficient to weather a storm. Lines with hundreds of cars quickly form at the gas station by would-be evacuees eager to fill up and bug out. Retail stores are likewise targeted, as people buy all sorts of items they may or may not need, all eager to stock up on things “just in case”. And since the early bird gets the worm, the millions of people who weren’t able to participate in the vulture-like picking of the retail system’s bones will be left unprepared, unsupplied, and unaware of what to do.

Specialization, therefore, is an unfortunate precursor to bondage and dependence. For if we are dependent (in full or in part) upon others for our continued survival, are we truly free? Does the computer scientist who lacks any survival skills truly provide for his family? Or can the accountant who lacks basic subsistence skills claim to be a responsible husband and father?

As a result of our division of labor, we have collectively forgotten basic skills that were largely understood by all just a couple generations ago. Our advances in technology have produced a generation of indolent, fat, ignorant people who need a proverbial IV in their arm at all times to provide them nourishment, protection, and knowledge. Spoon-fed for decades, we have surrendered our self-reliance and squandered our sovereignty. We rely upon the system for just about everything we need, and in the absence of just-in-time delivery, we will either riot, waste away, or give up and die.

The ability to specialize is not inherently destructive, as it can be directly attributed with yielding such marvelous progress our society has seen in the past century. However, foolish people have become comfortable with what others have come to provide for them, and have not taken the time to learn how they might accomplish the same. Few have given any thought to what might happen if this system is severely altered or disappears entirely.

In short, we have become slaves to the system—not subjected to any one person, but to the productive capacities of everyone around us. As a house pet is dependent upon its master for continued survival, so too have we as a society placed ourselves in a state of dependence and subservience. We have divided our labor, and as a result, have chained ourselves to the system. Its fate has become our own.

12 Responses to “The Dangers of Division of Labor”

  1. Carborendum
    April 19, 2009 at 2:34 pm #

    Gee, this sounds familiar.

  2. Ciera Thayne
    April 19, 2009 at 4:32 pm #

    I don’t think that the problem is the division of labor itself, because we are each given different talents to benefit everyone. The problem is that we don’t also have basic knowledge that we would need to survive without others, and that most don’t even think that this is important. If we realized that we were dependent, and all understood that it may not always be this way, then we would also study things like gardening and food growing and how to repair our homes. Even if we didn’t always do it ourselves, we would value having the knowledge. Without division of labor, we would not have the same standard of living. But if we have the knowledge we need to survive if others couldn’t help us, and understood that it is a possibility, then we would be fine. Division of labor is good, as long as we are not complacent.

  3. Amber
    April 19, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    I don’t see the division of labor as a frightening thing should a disaster occur. I may be naive, but I just don’t think any disaster will be of such proportions that people will die because they have divided their labor. I feel it is more a general lack of self accomplishment. Divided labor, as you pointed out, has done great things for our standard of living. The problem is that people forget how to do things for themselves, or how to just figure stuff out; it is easier to pay someone to do something for you. The real tragedy is degradation of moral character (for lack of a better term), and I feel this leads to a lower feeling of self worth, laziness, and general “depression”. Most people know they feel better when they have accomplished something or made something with their hands for their own benefit, but with time constraints we reason that it doesn’t make sense to do it ourselves. That is the trap. We reason away doing things that can bring us sublime contentment.
    Or I may just be full of crap.

  4. Clumpy
    April 19, 2009 at 8:22 pm #

    Connor has a great point here – I think that the problem is less that people specialize (as Ciera said), but that “Computer Programmer” or “Technical Writer” becomes the core of our identity and skillset. What are we going to do when everything hits the fan and human skills are our primary currency?

    I joke, but this is a serious issue. Also worth considering is the fact that most of our production capacity is housed overseas where prices are cheaper. What kind of adjustments will we have to make if one of these third-world powerhouses is destabilized or, worse, builds their way toward autonomous self-sufficience?

    In other news, how many of us know how to cook with flour or sugar anymore? It’s not alarmism but a real problem. We’re too densely-packed, too inflexible.

  5. Carborendum
    April 19, 2009 at 8:46 pm #


    I don’t really see how a person’s feeling of self accomplishment really enters into what Connor was talking about. I see and agree with what you’re saying. I just don’t think it is the same subject.

    I see the need to be multi-disciplined as a follow up to the “provident provider” article. It goes along with what Ciera said. If stuff happens (like we lose our job) our ability to do basic things really helps not only sustain, but pay the bills.

    I know people who can’t cook. (Those earlier Carl’s Jr. commercials are not far from reality). Do you know how much money you save when you cook from scratch as opposed to buying Stouffer’s all the time? When you change your own oil vs. taking it to the mechanic? Do your own plumbing?

    Growing a garden might be a fun hobby. But growing on a large scale (a small farm for the family) is different. You really need to know your stuff.

    If stuff happens, and heaven forbid we have a breakdown of society, would we be able to even grow our own food? What about basic medicines? How many know first aid skills?

    The list goes on. Not everyone had these skills back in the day. And people died.

    The main points are:

    1) If the SHTF we have these skills to provide security and support.

    2) Even if we’re just on hard times, having skills greatly reduces the cost of living. Thus it will be easier to cope. And it will make it easier to find work if we can be handy.

  6. Connor
    April 19, 2009 at 8:55 pm #

    The points I discuss here are in large part an extension of the thoughts I expressed in last fall’s article on why this depression will be worst than the last.

    The core issue at hand is the fact that we have grown accustomed to and dependent upon an infrastructure whose continuance is neither guaranteed nor realistic. As I said in this post, division of labor has no inherent negative quality. It is only when we refuse to diversify our own talents and abilities that we put our futures at an even greater risk.

  7. Clumpy
    April 19, 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    I meant to say “human SKULLS are our primary currency” above, not “skills.” Ruined the joke, that.

  8. ron
    April 20, 2009 at 6:16 am #

    Hi Connor,
    I think your article complements rather nicely Frank’s latest one over at SUMP (http://economicspolitics.blogspot.com) He talks about how the church is stagnating because the members are getting so caught up with looking out for number one. I think that if we can solve either problem, the other will take care of itself.

  9. Carborendum
    April 20, 2009 at 9:19 pm #

    I don’t know if it is that we’re looking out for number one as much as . . . We don’t really know how to help others unless there is a disaster like Katrina.

    There is the political correctness of giving without being condescending. There are the conflicting principles like “helping those who help themselves. There are economic issues with just being able to take care of one’s own family let alone helping others.

    When we don’t have these basic skills that have already been mentioned, how can we effectively give our time instead of our money? Are we connected to each others’ lives enough to know when someone is in need and WHAT they need?

    And there are many theories on church membership declines (including interpretations of the data that show it isn’t declining that much). Frank’s is just one of them. Although I see some truth in what he is saying, I tend to think it is just a piece of the pie rather than the major reason.

  10. SGT Danger
    April 22, 2009 at 6:15 am #

    Dude. One of your best posts yet. When we divide our tasks into a system, we commit ourselves to the benefits and the hazards of that system. I see this in the Army. A platoon is a system made of countless parts that when working in time is a force of efficiency and strength to be reckoned with. But all the parts must function just right – so management, maintenance, and control are required. That means inspections, training, pushups, supervision. A working system always needs control. In each case, before committing to a division of labor, we must determine if the benefits are worth the control.

  11. ajax
    April 23, 2009 at 9:24 am #

    The Division of labor is a blessing for all, but can be a curse for some. Because of the DoL, abundance has become the norm which leads many people to “take no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself”. It’s the wealth problem so deftly described in the BoM, which tempts the wealthy so slack off on preparedness (spiritually and temporally). Preparedness of course is the key. I’m not a green thumb for sure, but because of the division of labor and the higher wages earned, and the principle of preparedness, I can stock up on foodstuffs that I don’t grow. And let us remember that recovery after disasters is a hundred times faster, from immediate relief to long term rebuilding, because of the DoL.

  12. Kellene
    April 23, 2009 at 3:10 pm #

    Have you never been in a grocery store on a Monday, when so many of their supplies have been depleted over the weekend? I have and certainly feel inconvenienced by this simple anomaly. Now picture this scenario a hundred fold as the result of a REAL food shortage and a failing currency in our nation. It is as ugly as anything out of Hollywood has ever portrayed it. If our currency fails then all of the foods we import into our nation cease. If our food fails then all of the currency which we bring into our nation ceases as well. It’s a no win situation and you don’t have to look far to notice that both commodities are under serious threat! http://tinyurl.com/bmmjgo

Leave a Reply

Leave your opinion here. Please be nice. Your Email address will be kept private.