Anand Chitnis
The Scottish Enlightenment

Smith's exposition of the division of labour was first given in his Lectures in the early 1760s and published in almost identical wording in the Wealth of Nations in 1776. In the second chapter of that work he explains how the division of labour comes about; it arises from that propensity in human nature and peculiar to human nature, to barter, to truck and to exchange. Man always has need for other men but he can scarcely hope to interest other men in him purely from benevolence. Hence bargains are struck, and exchange for goods and services is made between different specialists, for reasons of self-love, not benevolence. The disposition of man to treaty leads to the division of labour. By indulging in the exercise, a man appreciates that he can live sufficiently well by specialising in one task rather than undertaking both a craft and foraging for provisions. The examples Smith gives include that of a person adept at making bows and arrows in the primitive or pastoral stage of history. He exchanges what he makes for cattle or venison till he sees that he can, by exchange, get more cattle and venison than if he went to catch them himself. So he specialises as an armourer. In this context Smith gives many other examples—smith, brazier, tanner, dresser. A precondition of the division of labour would also be the accumulation of stock—hence the initiator of the division of labour is unlikely to be a poor man.

In the third chapter of the Wealth of Nations, Smith is concerned to show how the process of the division of labour is limited by the extent of the market. In a small market, one man's surplus produce may exceed the need he has for other men's labour. In towns, division of labour is likely to be more common than in country areas where in scattered villages every farmer must be butcher, baker and brewer. Improvements in water-transport, because they enlarge the market, are, therefore, great stimuli to the division of labour.

It is now appropriate to notice Smith's opening chapter, which is concerned with the effects of the division of labour, the chapter which contains the celebrated example of pin manufacture. In that example Smith writes of the almost eighteen operations required in the process, undertaken by say ten men and producing 48,000 pins a day, whereas if only one of those men had tried to make pins independently, he could not have made twenty, perhaps not even one a day. The division of labour, in other words, massively increased production, and as it worked for pin manufacture so it equally well applied to other areas of manufacture. A consequence of this was the separation of different trades and employments: the greater the degree of refinement in a country, the greater the degree of separation of trades. Agriculture still does not subdivide the employments so greatly as manufacture and this may explain why agricultural production does not keep pace with manufactured production.

The division of labour occasions increased production by the same number of workers because of three factors; the increased dexterity of an individual workman concentrating on fewer processes; the saving of time by concentrating on one task and the introduction of labour-saving devices. In the case of the third factor, Smith maintained that the division of labour itself prompted the invention of machines as workmen thought of labour-saving devices to aid them in the single task they now had to perform. The final consequence was the 'universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people'.

Adam Ferguson did not account for the rise of the division of labour other than by stating in his History of Civil Society that there would be no great progress in the arts of life unless it was introduced. He noted too the unequal division of the means of subsistence which assigned different work to different men, and a sense of utility led to further subdivisions. The advantages of the system that Ferguson saw were much the same as Smith's—more perfect work arising from a single preoccupation, more profits for the manufacturer from 'economic' use of his work force, more perfect produce for the consumer. On further examination of Ferguson's analysis it can be seen that he gives less place to self-interest because of his particular view of man as a community being. It led him into a most pessimistic view of the division of labour, which led to alienation and the soul destruction of individuals in a refined society. 'Where shall we find the talents which are fit to act with men in a collective body, if we break that body into parts, and confine the observation of each to a separate track?.'

That almost plaintive cry is the cue for Ferguson's constant criticisms of a society where the division of labour prevails. In considering his critique, it must be borne in mind that he was himself a former army chaplain and in the forefront of the campaign for a Scottish militia. He is absorbed with matters of defence and virtu. As a result of the division of labour, says Ferguson, tradesmen knowing of nothing but their own trade, may in fact contribute to the prosperity of their nation without knowing anything of human affairs, and without consciously making patriotism their object. Soldiers, statesmen and public servants have their work rigidly compartmentalised—they become cogs in a machine.

With individuals left to their own skills and callings of which others are ignorant, 'society is made to consist of parts, of which none is animated with the spirit of society itself. At least savage societies are patriotic: refined societies no longer apprehend common ties, are languid and may even decay. The more the separation of professions takes place, as in China, the less strong in reality is the state because the fewer people there are able to defend the country physically from an enemy. 'By having separated the arts of the clothier and the tanner, we are the better supplied with shoes and with cloth. But to separate the arts which form the citizen and the statesman, the arts of policy and war, is an attempt to dismember the human character, and to destroy those very arts we mean to improve.' In short, the division of labour may be good for business and for comfort, but it can destroy the state and, worse, 'dismember the human character'.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.