What is the ideal society? If we could remove all obstacles and impediments, what kind of world should we create? While there has been no shortage of proposed answers to this age-old question, they almost all have one thing in common: the ideal society is one without the division of labor.
We can see this in numerous utopian writings, such as the Marxists. Karl Marx himself thought that in the paradisaical communist society, man would participate in whatever activities he desired, switching from one to the other at a whim. Leon Trotsky, thinking in the same vein of Marx, believed that in communism every man would follow his heart’s desires and be capable of greatness in any and all fields, writing: “The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise”. Jean Jacque-Rosseau also believed that in man’s natural (and optimal) state, there would be no division of labor.
Even in those utopian writings where there is a division of labor, it is calcified and little if any variation or movement is allowed. In the ideal republic of Plato, for instance, the classes that society is divided into are very clear, each with their own defined roles and purposes. These classes cannot be mixed, nor can new ones be created. The same is also true for the ideal society of Thomas Moore as well. There is a sense that even if the division of labor is begrudgingly accepted, it must be carefully watched and controlled.
But why? Why is it that the utopian mindset is so biased against the idea of a division of labor? On its face, that there is such a bias is surprising. After all, the division of labor is as old as society itself, and we can scarcely imagine a world without it. The idea that each individual has their own occupation is almost ingrained in our psyche. Why is something so natural to us seen as determinantal to the utopians?
In truth, the reason for their antipathy for the division of labor is simple: they view it as being necessarily constricting. It forces individuals into a single occupation and forbids them from experimenting in any alternative professions. It constricts man’s desires, passions, and spirit. If not for the division of labor, then everyone would be free to pursue whatever interested him at any given time. He may choose to be a farmer, and then later a carpenter, and then later a merchant. Instead, the division of labor hems us into a single path, choking out any ingenuity or creativity we may have.
Is this an accurate account of the effects of the division of labor? As one might expect of utopian writers, it isn’t quite realistic. The division of labor is not some optional feature of society, but serves as the bedrock of civilization as we know it. Simple interactions with our family and friends are enough to create families and communities. But it is interaction with people we do not know that forms the interdependence and social bonds that create a civilization. The great economist Ludwig von Mises clearly recognized the social importance of the division of labor, writing:
“The most important effect of the division of labor is that it turns the independent individual into a dependent social being. Under the division of labor social man changes, like the cell which adapts itself to be part of an organism. He adapts himself to new ways of life, permits some energies and organs to atrophy and develops others” (Socialism, pg. 304)
Moreover, the adoption of division of labor in eons past was not an arbitrary decision, but done in recognition of the numerous benefits that it provides to us every day. Bob Murphy in his introductory economics book, “Choice: Cooperation, Enterprise, and Human Action” lists these benefits as the following:
- Reduces time wasted switching between tasks
- Allows for economies of scale
- Certain tasks require a certain threshold of workers
- Takes advantage of natural ability
- Allows people to increase their skill at a single task
- The Ricardian Law of Association
The most recognizable of these is that the division of labor results in an increase in productivity. Where everyone has to gather or catch their own food, make their own clothes, and build everything they need themselves, it is difficult if not impossible to rise above mere subsistence living. None of the luxuries we enjoy in our modern day would be even a remote possibility. Man entered the division of labor precisely because of the recognition that interpersonal trade is superior to individual autarky. The result is that standards of living began to improve and wealth could start to accumulate, leading to the banal wonders that we enjoy today.
The division of labor is not constrictive, but liberating. If it were not for plentiful advantages that it provides, man would still be relegated to a crushingly impoverished state. He would have nothing, living in despair and squalor. It is only because of the division of labor that man has the wealth to do anything at all beyond desperately struggling to survive. Anything beyond pure survival from day-to-day would not exist. No one would have the energy or ability to become an Aristotle, Goethe, or Marx. Empty stomachs tend to make for poor literature.
The attitude of the utopian is that the division of labor is an optional feature of society that we would all be happier without. They could not be more mistaken. Society itself is a product of the division of labor. It has allowed us to have the heightened standards of living that we enjoy today, and will allow us to reach even higher still. The utopians dismiss it because they simply do not understand it. Ironically enough, the division of labor is what allows the writer to have his occupation in the first place. In the case of the utopian writings, however, that may be the strongest argument against it.