In his speech yesterday Gordon Brown made much of the idea of talent:
Each and everyone of us has a talent and each and everyone of us should be able to use that talent...
we must unlock all the talents of all of the people.
This is the purest wibble. Economic success requires that talent not be unlocked, and remain unused.
One reason for this is that customers and employers want consistency, guaranteed delivery, predictability. And this requires that people work well within the limits of their talents.
If you had to go into hospital for a minor operation, who would you rather perform it - the brilliant surgeon for whom the operation is a dull routine one, or the young and mediocre one for whom it's challenge requiring full use of their talent?
Even in football and music - two areas where "talent" is most valued - this is true. Many musicians feel frustrated because their audience wants to hear their well-known work which they can perform in their sleep rather than their newer more adventuous work. Many footballers can thrive by cutting out tricks - ask Joe Cole; even Cesc Fabregas (pbuh) reins in his full skills.
A second reason is that, as Adam Smith pointed out, the division of labour is the key to economic progress. We get rich by specializing, as this both raises productivity through incessant practice, and allows comparative advantage to generate gains from trade. But this specialization stifles many of our talents. The musician who becomes a lawyer never fully unlocks his musical talent. The cricketer who becomes a doctor lets his cricketing talent wither.
As A.N. Whitehead said, "civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
And then there's capitalism. Capitalism is all about maximizing profit. All profits come from power. And this means disempowering talented workers. As Harry Braverman showed in one of the best books ever written, capitalism requires that workers be robbed of their skills.
And this is why Brown's words are not only stupid, but perniciously stupid. In pretending that economic progress and human flourishing can always coexist - especially under capitalism - he's ignoring one of the most important and profound trade-offs of all.