A Treatise on Political Economy

Jean-Baptiste Say
Say, Jean-Baptiste
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C. R. Prinsep, trans. and Clement C. Biddle., ed.
First Pub. Date
Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co.,
Pub. Date
6th edition. Based on the 4th-5th editions.
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We have already observed that the several operations, the combination of which forms but one branch of industry, are not in general undertaken or performed by the same person; for they commonly require different kinds of talent; and the labour requisite to each is enough to take up a man's whole time and attention. Nay, in some instances, a single one of these operations is split again into smaller subdivisions, each of them sufficient for one person's exclusive occupation.


Thus, the study of nature is shared amongst the chemist, the botanist, the astronomer, and many other classes of students in philosophy.


Thus, too, in the application of human knowledge to the satisfaction of human wants, in manufacturing industry, for instance, we find different classes of manufacturers employed exclusively in the fabric of woollens, pottery, furniture, cottons, &c. &c.


Finally, in the executive part of each of the three branches of industry, there are often as many different classes of workmen as there are different kinds of work. To make the cloth of a coat, there must have been set to work the several classes of spinners, weavers, dressers, shearers, dyers, and many other classes of labourers, each of whom is constantly and exclusively occupied upon one operation.


The celebrated Adam Smith was the first to point out the immense increase of production, and the superior perfection of products referable to this division of labour.*77 He has cited among other examples, the manufacture of pins. The workmen occupied in this manufacture execute each but one part of a pin. One draws the wire, another cuts it, a third sharpens the points. The head of a pin alone requires two or three distinct operations, each performed by a different individual. By means of this division, an ill-appointed establishment, with but ten labourers employed, could make 48,000 pins per day, by Smith's account. Whereas, if each person were obliged to finish off the pins one by one, going through every operation successively from first to last, each would probably make but 20 per day, and the ten workmen would produce in the whole but 200, in lieu of 48,000.


Smith attributes this prodigious difference to three causes:

1. The improved dexterity, corporeal and intellectual, acquirer by frequent repetition of one simple operation. In some fabrics the rapidity with which some of the operations are performed exceeds what the human hand could, by those who had never seen them, be supposed capable of acquiring.
2. The saving of the time which is commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another, and in the change of place, position, and tools. The attention, which is always slowly transferred, has no occasion to transport itself and settle upon a new object.
3. The invention of a great number of machines, which facilitate and abridge labour in all its departments. For the division of labour naturally limits each operation to an extremely simple task, and one that is incessantly repeated; which is precisely what machinery may most easily be made to perform.


Besides, men soonest discover the methods of arriving at a particular end, when the end is approximate, and their attention exclusively directed to it. Discoveries, even in the walk of philosophy, are for the most part referable, in their origin, to the subdivision of labour; because it is this subdivision that enables men to devote themselves to the exclusive pursuit of one branch of knowledge; which exclusive devotion has wonderfully favoured their advancement.*78


Thus the knowledge or theory necessary to the advancement of commercial industry for instance, attains a far greater degree of perfection, when different persons engage in the several studies; one of geography, with the view of ascertaining the respective position and products of different countries; another of politics, with a view to inform himself of their national laws and manners, and the advantages and disadvantages of commercial intercourse with them; a third of geometry and mechanics, by way of determining the preferable form of the ships, carriages, and machinery of all kinds, that must be employed; a fourth of astronomy and natural philosophy, for the purposes of navigation, &c. &c.


Thus, too, the application of knowledge in the same department of commercial industry will obviously arrive at a higher degree of perfection, when divided amongst the several branches of internal, Mediterranean, East and West Indian, American, wholesale and retail, &c. &c.


Moreover, such a division is no obstacle to the combination of operations not altogether incompatible, more especially if they aid and assist each other. There is no occasion for two different merchants to conduct, one the trade of import for home consumption, and the other the trade of export of home products; because these operations, far from clashing, mutually facilitate and assist each other.*79


The division of labour cheapens products, by raising a greater quantity at the same or less charge of production. Competition soon obliges the producer to lower the price to the whole amount of the saving effected; so that he derives much less benefit than the consumer; and every obstacle the latter throws in the way of that division is an injury to himself.


Should a tailor try to make his own shoes as well as his coat, he would infallibly ruin himself.*80 We see every day people acting as their own merchants, to avoid paying a regular trader the ordinary profit of his business; to use their own expression, with the view of pocketing that profit themselves. But this is an erroneous calculation; for this division of labour enables the regular dealer to execute the business for them much cheaper than they can do it themselves. Let them reckon up the trouble it costs them, the loss of time, the money thrown away in extra charges, which is always proportionally more in small than in large operations, and see if all these together do not amount to more than the two or three per cent. that might be saved on every paltry item of consumption; even supposing them not to be deprived of what little advantage they might expect, by the avarice of the cultivator or manufacturer they would have to deal directly with, who will of course impose, if he can, upon their inexperience.


It is no advantage, even to the cultivator or manufacturer himself, except under very particular circumstances, to intrude upon the province of the merchant, and endeavour to deal directly with the consumer without his intervention. He would only divert his attention from his ordinary occupation, and lose time that might be far better employed in his own peculiar line; besides being under the necessity of keeping up an establishment of people, horses, carriages, &c. the expenses of which would far exceed the merchant's profit, reduced as it always must be by competition.


The advantages accruing from division of labour can be enjoyed in respect of particular kinds of products only; and not in them, until their consumption has exceeded a certain point of extension. Ten workmen can make 48,000 pins in a day; but would hardly do so, unless where there was a daily consumption of pins to that amount; for, to arrive at this degree of division of labour, one workman must be wholly and exclusively occupied in sharpening the points, while the rest are severally engaged, each in a different part of the process. If there be a daily demand for no more than 24,000, he must needs lose half his day's work, or change his occupation, in which case, the division of labour will be less extensive and complete.


For this reason, divisions of labour cannot be carried to the extreme limit, except in products capable of distant transport and the consequent increase of consumption; or where manufacture is carried on amidst a dense population, offering an extensive local consumption. For the same reason, too, many kinds of work, the products of which are destined to instantaneous consumption, are executed by the same individual, in places where the population is limited. In a small town or village, the same person is often barber, surgeon, doctor, and apothecary; while in a populous city, and there only, these are not merely separate and distinct occupations, but some of them are again subdivided into several branches; that of the surgeon, for instance, is split into the several occupations of dentist, oculist, accoucher, &c.; each of which practitioners, by confining his practice to a single branch of this extensive art, acquires a degree of skill, which, but for this division, he could never attain.


The same circumstance applies equally to commercial industry. Take the village grocer; the consumption of his groceries is so limited, as to oblige him to be at the same time haberdasher, stationer, innkeeper, and who knows what, perhaps even news-writer and publisher; whereas in large cities, not only grocery at large, but even the sale of a single article of grocery, is a great commercial concern. At Paris, London, and Amsterdam, there are shops, where nothing else is sold but the single article tea, oil or vinegar; and it is natural to suppose that such shops have a much better assortment of the single article, than those dealing in many different commodities at once. Thus, in a rich and populous country, the carrier, the wholesale, the intermediate, and the retail dealer conduct each a separate branch of commercial industry, and conduct it with greater perfection as well as greater economy. Yet they all benefit by this economy; and that they do so, if the explanations already given are not convincing, experience bears irrefragable testimony; for consumers always buy cheapest where commercial industry is the most subdivided. Ceteris paribus, a commodity brought from the same distance is sold cheaper at a large town or fair, than in a village or hamlet.


The limited consumption of hamlets and villages, besides obliging dealers to combine many elsewhere distinct occupations, prevents many articles from finding a regular sale at all seasons. Some are not presented for sale at all, except on market or fair days; on such days the whole week's or perhaps year's consumption is laid in. On all other days, the dealer either travels elsewhere with his wares, or finds some other kind of occupation. In a very rich and very populous district, the consumption is so great, as to make the sale of one article only, quite as much as a trader can manage, though he devote every day in the week to the business. Fairs and markets are expedients of an early stage of national prosperity; the trade by caravans is a still earlier stage of international commerce; but even these expedients are far better than none at all.*81


From the necessity of the existence of a very extended consumption, before division of labour can be carried to its extreme point, it follows, that such division can never be introduced in the manufacture of products, which, from their high price, are placed within the reach of few purchasers. In jewellery, especially of the better kinds, it is practised in a very limited degree; and such division being, as we have seen, one cause of the invention and application of ingenious processes, it is not surprising that such processes are least often met with in the preparation of products of highly finished workmanship. In visiting the workshop of a lapidary, one is often dazzled with the costliness of the materials, and the skill and patience of the workman; but it is only in the grand manufactories of articles of universal consumption, that one is astonished with the display of ingenuity employed to give additional expedition and perfection to the product. In looking at an article of jewellery, it is easy to form an idea of the tools and processes, by means of which it has been executed; whereas few people, on viewing a common stay-lace, would suppose it had been made by a horse or a current of water, which is actually the case.


Of the three branches of industry, agriculture is the one that admits division of labour in the least degree. It is impossible to collect any great number of cultivators on the same spot, to use their joint exertions in the raising of one and the same product. The soil they work upon is extended over the whole surface of the globe, and obliges them to work at considerable distance from each other. Besides, agriculture does not allow of one person being continually employed in the same operation. One man cannot be all the year ploughing or digging, any more than another can find constant occupation in gathering in the crop. Moreover, it is very rarely that the whole of one's land can be devoted to the same kind of cultivation, or that the same kind of cultivation can be continued on the same spot for many successive years. The land would be exhausted; and, supposing the cultivation of the whole property to be uniform, yet even then, the preparing and dressing of the whole ground, and the getting in of the whole of the crops, would come on at the same time, and the labourers be unoccupied at other periods of the year.*82


Moreover, the nature of his occupation and of agricultural products makes it highly convenient for the cultivator to raise his own vegetables, fruit, and cattle, and even to manufacture part of the tools and utensils employed in his house-keeping; though in the other channels of industry, these items of consumption give exclusive occupation to a number of distinct classes.


Where concerns of industry are carried on in manufactories, in which one and the same master manufacturer conducts the product through all its stages, he can never establish any great subdivision of the various operations, without great command of capital. For such division requires larger advances of wages, of raw materials, and of tools and implements. Where eighteen workmen manufacture but twenty pins each per day, that is to say, in all 360 pins, weighing scarcely an ounce of metal, the daily advance of an ounce of fresh metal is enough to keep them in regular work. But if, in consequence of division of labour, these same eighteen persons can be brought, as we know they can, to produce 86,400 pins, the daily supply of raw material requisite for their regular employ will be 240 ounces weight of metal; consequently a much more considerable advance will be called for. If we further take into calculation, that there is an interval of probably a month or more, from the purchase of the metal by the manufacturer to the period of his reimbursement by the sale of his pins, we shall find that he must necessarily have at all times on hand, in different stages of progressive manufacture, 30 times 240 ounces of metal; in other words, the portion of his capital vested in raw material alone will amount to the value of 450 lbs. of metal. In addition to which, it must be observed, that the division of labour cannot be effected without the aid of various implements and machines, that form themselves an important item of capital. Thus, in poor countries, we frequently find a product carried through all its stages, from first to last, by one and the same workman, from mere want of the capital requisite for a judicious division of the different operations.


We must not however suppose, that, to effect this division of labour, it is necessary the capital should be placed all in the hands of a single adventurer, or the business conducted all within the walls of one grand establishment. A pair of boots undergoes a variety of processes, whereof all are not executed by the bootmaker alone; the grazier, the tanner, the currier, all others, who immediately or remotely furnish any substance or tool used in the making of boots, contribute to the raising of the product; and though there is a very considerable subdivision of labour in the making of this article, the greater part of the joint and concurrent producers may have very little command of capital.


Having detailed the advantages of the subdivision of the various occupations of industry, and the extent to which it may be carried, the view of the subject would be incomplete, were we to omit noticing, on the other hand, the inconveniences that inseparably attend it.


A man, whose whole life is devoted to the execution of a single operation, will most assuredly acquire the faculty of executing it better and quicker than others; but he will, at the same time, be rendered less fit for every other occupation, corporeal or intellectual; his other faculties will be gradually blunted or extinguished; and the man, as an individual, will degenerate in consequence. To have never done any thing but make the eighteenth part of a pin, is a sorry account for a human being to give of his existence. Nor is it to be imagined that this degeneracy from the dignity of human nature is confined to the labourer, that plies all his life at the file or the hammer; men, whose professional duties call into play the finest faculties of the mind, are subject to similar degradation. This division of occupations has given rise to the profession of attorneys, whose sole business it is to appear in the courts of justice instead of the principals, and to follow up the different steps of the process on their behalf. These legal practitioners are, confessedly, seldom deficient in technical skill and ability; yet it is not uncommon to meet with men, even of eminence in this profession, wholly ignorant of the most simple processes of the manufactures they every day make use of; who, if they were set to work to mend the simplest article of their furniture, would scarcely know how to begin, and could probably not drive a nail, without exciting the risibility of every carpenter's awkward apprentice; and if placed in a situation of a greater emergency, called upon, for instance, to save a drowning friend, or to rescue a fellow-townsman from a hostile attack, would be in a truly distressing perplexity; whereas a rough peasant, inhabiting a semi-barbarous district, would probably extricate himself from a similar situation with honour.


With regard to the labouring class, the incapacity for any other than a single occupation, renders the condition of mere labourers more hard and wearisome, as well as less profitable. They have less means of enforcing their own rights to an equitable portion of the gross value of the product. The workman, that carries about with him the whole implements of his trade, can change his locality at pleasure, and earn his subsistence wherever he pleases: in the other case, he is a mere adjective, without individual capacity, independence, or substantive importance, when separated from his fellow-labourers, and obliged to accept whatever terms his employer thinks fit to impose.


On the whole, we may conclude, that division of labour is a skilful mode of employing human agency, that it consequently multiplies the productions of society; in other words, the powers and the enjoyments of mankind; but that it in some degree degrades the faculties of man in his individual capacity.*83 *84

Notes for this chapter

Beccaria, in a public course of lectures on political economy, delivered at Milan in the year 1769, and before the publication of Smith's work, had remarked the favourable influence of the division of labour upon the multiplication of products. These are his words: "Ciascuno prova coll' esperienza, che, applicando la mano e l'ingegne sempre allo stesso genere di opere e di prodotti, egli piu facilli, piu abondanti e migliori ne travo i resultati, di quello, che se ciascuno isolatamente le cose tutte a se necessarie soltanto facesse: onde altri pascono le pecore, altri ne cardano le lane, altri le tessonoe: chi coltiva biade, chi ne fa il pane: chi veste, chi fabrica agli agricoltorie la voranti; crescendo e concatenandosi le arti, e dividendosi in tal maniera, per la commune e privata utilità gli nomini in varie classi e condizioni." "We all know, by personal experience, that, by the continual application of the corporeal and intellectual faculties to one peculiar kind of work or product, we can obtain the product with more ease, and in greater abundance and perfection, than if each were to depend upon his own exertions for all the objects of his wants. For this reason, one man feeds sheep, a second cards the wool, and a third weaves it: one man cultivates wheat, another makes bread, another makes clothing or lodging for the cultivators and mechanics: this multiplication and concatenation of the arts, and division of mankind into a variety of classes and conditions, operating to promote both public and private welfare."

However, I have given Smith the credit of originality in his ideas of the division of labour; first, because, in all probability, he had published his opinions from his chair of professor of philosophy at Glasgow before Beccaria, as it is well known he did the principles that form the ground-work of his book; but chiefly because he has the merit of having deduced from them the most important conclusions.**

    * [All the fundamental doctrines contained in the Inquiry into the Wealth of Nations, were comprehended in Dr. Smith's course of political lectures, delivered at Glasgow as early as the year 1752; "at a period surely," says Dugald Stewart, "when there existed no French (and he might have added, nor Italian) performance on the subject, that could be of much use to him in guiding his researches." A short manuscript, drawn up by Dr. Smith in the year 1755, fully establishes his exclusive claim to the most important opinions detailed in his treatise on the Wealth of Nations, which did not appear until the beginning of the year 1776. "A great part of the opinions enumerated in this paper, (he observes,) is treated of at length in some lectures which I have still by me (1755,) and which were written in the hand of a clerk who left my service six years ago. They have all of them been the constant subject of my lectures, since I first taught Mr. Craigie's class, the first winter I spent in Glasgow, down to this day, without any considerable variation.—They had all of them been the subject of lectures which I read in Edinburgh the winter before I left it, and I can adduce innumerable witnesses, both from that place and from this, who will ascertain them sufficiently to be mine." Vide Mr. Stewart's Account of the Life and Writings of Adam Smith, LL. D. read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh, January 21 and March 18, 1793.] American Editor.
But though many important discoveries in the arts have originated in division of labour, we must not refer to that source the actual products that have resulted, and will to eternity result, from those discoveries. The increased product must flow from the productive power of natural agents, no matter what may have been the occasion of our first becoming acquainted with the means of employing those agents. Vide supra, Chap. IV.
The combination of operations which at first sight appears to be distinct, is far more practicable in what our author calls the branch of application, than in either the theoretical or the executive branch. A general merchant, by means of clerks and brokers, will combine a vast variety of different commercial operations, and yet prosper. Why? Because his own peculiar task is that of superintendence of commercial dealings; which superintendence may be extended over a greater surface of dealing without incongruity, being on a closer inspection, but a repetition of the same operation. Translator.
The low price of sugar in China is probably occasioned, in part, by the circumstance of the grower leaving to a separate class the extraction of the sugar from the cane. This operation is performed by itinerant sugar pressers, who go from house to house, offering their services, and provided with an extremely simple apparatus Vide Macartney's Embassy, vol. iv. p. 198.
The country markets of France not only exhibit extreme inertness in particular channels of consumption; but a very cursory observation is sufficient to show, that the sale of products in them is very limited, and the quality of what are sold very inferior. Besides the local products of the district, one sees nothing there, except a few tools, woollens, linens, and cottons of the most inferior quality. In a more advanced stage of prosperity, one would find some few objects of gratification of wants peculiar to a more refined state of existence: some articles of furniture combining convenience and elegance of form; woollens of some variety of fineness and pattern; articles of food of a more expensive kind, whether on account of their preparation or the distance they may have been brought from; a few works of instruction or tasteful amusement; a few books besides mere almanacs and prayer-books. In a still more advanced stage, the consumption of all these things would be constant and extensive enough to support regular and well-stocked shops in all these different lines. Of this degree of wealth examples are to be found in Europe, particularly in parts of England, Holland, and Germany.
It is not common to meet with such large concerns in agriculture, as in the branches of commerce and manufacture. A farmer or proprietor seldom undertakes more than four or five hundred acres; and his concern, in point of capital and amount of produce, does not exceed that of a middling tradesman, or manufacturer. This difference is attributable to many concurrent causes; chiefly to the extensive area this branch of industry requires; to the bulky nature of the produce, and consequently difficulty of collecting it at one point from the distant parts of the farm, or sending it to very remote markets; to the nature of the business itself, which is not susceptible of any regular and uniform system, and requires in the adventurer a succession of temporary expedients and directions, suggested by the difference of culture, of manuring and dressings, and the variety of each labourer's occupations, according to the seasons, the change of weather &c.
This consideration makes it peculiarly incumbent upon the government of a manufacturing nation to diffuse the benefits of early education, and thus prevent the degeneration from being intellectual as well as corporeal. Translator.
["The extensive propagation of light and refinement," says Dugald Stewart, "arising from the influence of the press, aided by the spirit of commerce, seems to be the remedy to be provided by nature against the fatal effects which would otherwise be produced, by the subdivision of labour accompanying the progress of the mechanical arts: nor is any thing wanting to make the remedy effectual, but wise institutions to facilitate general instruction, and to adapt the education of individuals to the stations they are to occupy. The mind of the artist, which, from the limited sphere of his activity, would sink below the level of the peasant or the savage, might receive in infancy the means of intellectual enjoyment and the seeds of moral improvement; and even the insipid uniformity of his professional engagements, by presenting no object to awaken his ingenuity or to distract his attention, might leave him at liberty to employ his faculties on subjects more interesting to himself, and more extensively useful to others."] American Editor.

Book I, Chapter IX

End of Notes

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