Book Excerpt: The Magic of Work

This week’s Acton Commentary features an excerpt from my book. Here is a snippet on the division of labor as economic cooperation:

Consider the production of a book. If you are reading the print version, the paper came from trees that were felled by bearded lumberjacks wearing red flannel and suspenders (or so I imagine), made into paper in factories, then shipped to a printer. Similarly, the ink for the words and the cover had to be manufactured too. And all of the factories involved used tools that had to be made somewhere else, by someone else, at some time before. All of the vehicles used to transport the capital that would become this book had to be made by people all over the world, working to provide for their families and, unknowingly, to provide this book for you. If you’re using an e-reader, well, there are far more people and resources involved.

Some may notice that this intentionally channels a little bit of Leonard Read’s “I, Pencil.” I would commend that little essay to anyone who wants to read more on the subject.

So far as I can tell, Marx and company did a great disservice to the common understanding of the division of labor by stigmatizing it as a means of oppression. Real economists of his time actually talked about it in terms of economic cooperation (i.e. teamwork!). And since Adam Smith they have known that it is quite the opposite.

Too often people (including those who support free economies) think of modern economies as driven by a twisted sort of selfish, competitive spirit. This involves a whole host of misunderstandings, many of which I try to dispel in my book. Words like “competition” and “self-interest” do not mean to economists what they mean to normal people.

So also, I think there is a lost opportunity to think of the division of labor in terms of cooperation, an opportunity within the history of the term in economics itself. Through the division of labor, people are empowered to better serve their neighbors. For that matter, they are empowered to serve many more neighbors, many neighbors they will never even meet! A pessimist may call that being a cog in a machine — and of course I’m not saying that exploitation never happens — but I prefer to think of the division of labor as being a vital member of a team, serving not only one’s teammates (coworkers, employers) but people far outside of one’s immediate context (consumers, business partners) all over the world.

Indeed, because of the division of labor, many millions of people have risen out of centuries of poverty, their children have had the opportunity for higher education, their homes have had heat, running water, and refrigeration. They have had access to modern health care. And so on. Teamwork isn’t just bourgeois, business-speak propaganda; over the last 200 or so years, it has been one of the major driving forces for the material benefit of people all over the world, including the poorest of the poor.

And at the minimum, what team doesn’t need at least one bearded lumberjack? 🙂

Read the whole excerpt here.

And buy the book here.