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The Philosophy and Economics of the Division of Labor

Robert Garmong

Presented at: TOC 1993

Date: Oct 29, 1993

How many activities do you perform in a day that rely on the cooperation of other people? A dozen? A hundred? Perhaps a thousand? Material goods are among man’s most important values — they are the means of man’s physical sustenance. And in a capitalist economy, material goods are produced by specialized companies or individuals and traded for the products of others. This is what we mean by the division of labor.

Adam Smith, who gave the first and most systematic presentation of the division of labor in The Wealth of Nations, nonetheless was not a defender of laissez-faire. He believed that the division of labor would lead to problems: that workers would become demoralized automatons because they were too specialized.  This argument later became a crux of the attack on capitalism. In Marx’s writings, it became the concept of “alienation.” As phrased by Max Weber, this is the view that capitalism leads to “Specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart; this nullity imagines that it has attained a level of civilization never before achieved.” 

In order to understand the case for capitalism, therefore, we must understand and correct this error. In order to understand the mistaken views of the division of labor, we must first discover what the division of labor really is, and its intellectual foundations. That is the purpose of my talk today. 


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