« Geography, slavery and development | Main | Why are the poor fat? »

April 19, 2007


Roger Thornhill

If I divided a task it would be for the following reasons:

1- productivity
2- larger labour pool, resulting in
3- cheaper wages
4- better QC

The concept of "class war" would never enter my mind and I suspect never entered the minds of those owning the manufactories in Smith's day.

Actually we all divide labour all the time. Someone builds my TV, pumps my water, generates my electricity, locates oil reserves, makes paper etc etc.

The biggest curse is to be forced back into subsistence farming at the mercy of sun, rain and disease. No, I was wrong - on a collective.


"In theory, a pin-maker could spend one-eighteenth of his time drawing out the wire, another eighteenth straightening it, and so on with the result that during a week, 18 men would make as many pins as 18 men doing the specialist tasks." Utter bollocks. Have you ever organised anything?

Bruce G Charlton

Well, not really... Or at least there is far, far more to be said on the matter.

Division of labour is actually one of the simplest yet deepest ideas ever had by a human - its ramifications still continue to unfold.

eg: http://www.econtalk.org/archives/2007/04/mike_munger_on.html

Luis Enrique

i don't immediately see why bosses have a more essential co-ordinating function overseeing 18 pin makers each doing the same distinct task each day than they would overseeing 18 pin makers who rotate through the tasks.

and doesn't the well documented phenomenon of learning-by-doing suggest something about the productive advantages of specialisation?

Luis Enrique

and another thing ... I've seen you write about how one neglected explanation for high CEO wages is that doing the job of CEO would actually be regarded as unpleasant by most people (stretching my credulity somewhat) and pointing out that salaries reflect how distasteful jobs are, among other things.

So what happens to that effect when it comes to compensating workers for doing mind-numbing jobs?

if specialisation increases the number of jobs that can be performed by unskilled labour, does that increase demand and raise unskilled wages? Or does taking jobs that were once skilled and turning them unskilled destroy the livelihoods of skilled workers and force them to become drones? Doesn't that depend on how many skilled workers and unskilled workers and unemployed there were in the first place, and then how many extra jobs were created through economic growth arising from higher productivity? It's not obvious to me what dominates here.

Sometimes I wonder if people are looking at a rose tinted past where everyone was lovingly handcarving furniture or something - I think before nasty industrialisation there were probably plenty of shitty soul destroying jobs around. Farm labour for one.

I mean I'm all for innovative organisations that could make work more enjoyable for more people, who wouldn't be. I'm less sure you have quite nailed what's caused the deterioration in work satisfaction, or even if you have established that deterioration at all. In the old days people used to make bricks by hand, digging up the materials themselves, moulding and firing etc. whatever. I bet they just loved it, compared to those poor bastards operating brick making machines today.


Try building an integrated circuit by yourself from scratch to see the fallacy of the argument against the division of labour.

The fact that mass production allows unskilled labour to perform the task is one of the advantages, not a downside. Consider car manufacture, in mass production only a low level of skill is needed to screw a nut on a wheel 200 times a day, but you would need to be a pretty clever mechanic to assemble a car from scratch yourself. Mass production therefore greatly increases the job opportunities for lower skilled people.

Mass production also allows economies of scale, which the most powerful driver of productivity there is.


"In one of the greatest papers ever written (pdf), Stephen Margin points out that these specialist pin-makers were paid only around 20 shillings a week - less than many skilled workers."

So specialist pin-makers were cheaper than skilled workers? 18 people each capable of 1 job were less expensive than 18 people each capable of 18 jobs?

I do not see that this proves anything except, possibly, than someone can learnt to do 1 job faster than he can learn 18, and if he did learn all 18 he might be able to earn more.

Jonathan Ward

It is one thing to explain division of labour in terms of power relations (marxist economists explain everything, including gravity, by power relations). It is another to claim that division of labour does not increase labour productivity. The latter statement is patently untrue.

The guy's name is Marglin, by the way, not Margin.

Gavin Kenendy

Chris: as Mr McEnroe used to put it: ‘You can’t be serious’.

At say, a 10-hour working day (I’m keeping the arithmetic simple) that means the labourers (men or boys) would work for 33 minutes on each of the 18 operations to make a 2,000 pins a day each (changing activities with infinite velocity and being equally dexterous at each operation) to equal the output of 18 men working on a single part of the process each. There would have to be no ‘stumbling’ at all.

Assuming this could be done (having worked in factory processes, I have my doubts), why then wasn’t it done this way? Chris finds the answer in what he calls ‘“one of the greatest papers ever written”, written by Stephen A. Marglin, Harvard University., who writes:

“specialization was used by bosses as a way of dividing workers, and a way of ensuring that bosses had an essential function - that of coordinating the separate operations. Specialization, then, is a weapon in the class war, not a technical necessity.”

Now you know. As if 18 labourers changing their roles every 33 minutes would not require ‘co-ordination’! They would probably require more co-ordination if they were required to do all 18 operations in strict 33-minute time intervals.

So, previously unrecognised professional ‘proselytizers for capitalism’ travelled the entire western world finding artisans about to embark on adopting the division of labour, quietly spoke to them, and were so convincing that these hapless naïve idiots went against all of their instincts and re-organised their processes, not to increase labour productivity, but to engage in preparing the ground for ‘the class war’ on behalf of a class that did not yet exist and for a ‘war’ they would not live long enough to see.

The exact process by which mid-18th century commercial tradesmen (the ‘manufacturers’ in Wealth of Nations’) were transmuted into scheming zombies working for ‘capitalist control of labour’ is unexplained. The organisation that would have to be involved in such high levels of class consciousness about the requirements of a ‘capitalist’ system, not yet named nor invented in mid-18th-century Scotland (the word itself was only invented in 1854) are wondrous to behold. The notion that fairly uneducated artisans formulated such ideas about their secret roles on behalf of an inanimate ‘system’ nobody else noted or wrote about before the 19th century, is far fetched, to say the least.

Moreover, given that the division of labour commenced millennia beforehand in the ‘rude’ hunting mode of production and slowly and gradually spread across all modes of subsistence that followed, why on Earth did it necessarily lead to becoming prevalent as a ‘weapon’ in a ‘class war’? And why did nobody notice it?

Is there some hiden force at work, invisible to everybody else but authors in ‘The Review of Radical Political Economics’ that secretly is guiding selected people to do its bidding? A belief in secret, invisible, and seditious ‘forces’ that run the lives of billions of people, with absolutely no evidence, nor plausible speculations as to where these hidden forces come from, how they materialise or why they bother.

I think Chris ought to get out more, or look out of his window at least; the world ain’t like that – and never has been. Sad.


The key point I and Marglin made was merely that the division of labour does not require lifetime specialization in mindless tasks. Job rotation among the separate specialisms is not just perfectly feasible - it can lead to greater productivity.
Evidence? It's what Toyota (and other Japanese firms) does:
I suppose you guys think Toyota knows nothing about making cars.

Luis Enrique

Well that point - what Toyota does - sounds perfectly reasonable and where applicable ought to raise the productivity / lower the salary demands of workers by making them a bit happier. So profit maximising managers ought to adopt job rotation of that sort, where practicable and assuming workers do actually prefer it (come to think of it, when I used to work in an aerial factory people used to rotate jobs).

So perhaps you could argue that failing to do so reveals an ulterior motive (class war!) but it's building a pretty big story on a pretty thin foundation.

Gavin Kenendy

"The key point I and Marglin made was merely that the division of labour does not require lifetime specialization in mindless tasks."

Neither do I, nor does Smith. Of course jobs can be rotated and are regularly rotated in production lines. I know from experience that changing line jobs is popular.

However, in Book I of Wealth of Nations, Smith describes a process at one moment. It is only in Book V that he talks of mind-numbing work roles as part of his rhetoric to persuade in favour of a national education system, even bringing loose fears of disorder from uneducated labourers.

The division of labour is a process and Smith wrote about it before electric power driven machinery became common; there is nothing in Smith's exposition in Book I insisting that only the same identified people were kept at one segment of it for life. The simpler the task, the easier to switch jobs in the process.

Toyota knows a lot about making cars, and I suspect they know little about being part of a vast historic conspiracy to wage a 'class war' discovered by you and Marglin.

Igor Belanov

The implementation of a strict division of labour was blatantly a device to increase employer control of the work process. It was, as a result, often violently resisted by workers and must be regarded as part of a 'class war'. Attempts to increase productivity have frequently being resisted by workers, no matter what the motives of the employer.


"Attempts to increase productivity have frequently being resisted by workers, no matter what the motives of the employer."

Does this mean that the workers are "objectively reactionary"?

"Job rotation among the separate specialisms is not just perfectly feasible - it can lead to greater productivity."

"Can lead" does not mean "always leads". In my experience, workers in small factories are often moved from job to job. "Evans, help Johnston straighten those pins." This does not alter the fact that at any one moment specific individuals are responsible for specific jobs.

Chris - how often have you milked a cow? Served school dinners? Emptied dustbins? Worked on particle physics?

Were you stopped by some evil capitalist? Because these are all examples of the division of labour.

Bob Doney

"emptied dustbins"

Dustbins used to be emptied by dustmen. Now they are emptied by householders (mainly middle class), and the refuse disposal operatives (mainly proletariat) get to do the exciting bit of tossing the bags in the back of the lorry, or loading up the wheelie-bins. I don't know what Adam Smith would have made of it all.

John Médaille

Even Adam Smith had doubts about the division of labor. In the second edition of The Wealth of Nations, he says that:
"In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour… comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two… The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations… has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become." (italics added)

The division of labor per se does not create the efficiencies claimed for it, and modern management technique bears this out. What creates the efficiencies is the sequencing of tasks and the elimination of set-up times. So that one worker, working in larger batches, achieves the same efficiencies. However, D of L does impose some major inefficiencies (aside from the inefficiency of creating "stupid" workers, that is). As men cease to be “pin-makers” and become instead “wire-pullers” or “sharpeners” or one of the other eighteen jobs involved in the process, then knowledge of the process is lost among the workers. This means, in turn, that a new function is required, that of the professional manager. When men had knowledge of the whole process, then “management” was a minor consideration, and any one of the workers could, in theory, manage the process; management was a negligible expense. But with the loss of knowledge, management becomes the decisive factor and a huge overhead cost. Part of the gains in efficiency from the division of labor is lost to the need for increased management overhead.

The resulting increase in the need for, and power of, professional management leads to yet another difficulty: agency problems are increased. When managers become both numerous and important, they form a new group, a group with its own narrow interests. They are supposed to be fulfilling only the interests of the owners, but in fact they have their own set of interests. Therefore the overheads associated with agency are increased. Further, this division of the roles of worker and manager creates tensions and resentments on both sides.

John C. Médaille

"A dead thing can go with the stream...
but only a living thing can go against it."
-G. K. Chesterton

The comments to this entry are closed.

blogs I like

Blog powered by Typepad