Popular Political Economy: Four Lectures Delivered at the London Mechanics' Institution

Hodgskin, Thomas
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London: Charles Tait
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Chapter IV

Extended division of labour one characteristic of civilized man.—Connexion with productive power in England, Russia, and the United States.—Explanation of its advantages.—Comparison of making nails by the hand, and by machinery.—Further division of labour among established trades.—All the advantages of division of labour naturally belong to labourers.—It takes place under every kind of political institution, and must therefore originate in some natural principle.


IN the Introduction, the reader was made aware of the great difference between the productive power of individuals living in civilized society, and of savages. One cause of this, and one distinguishing characteristic of the former state of society, is that in it no man makes for himself all the commodities which he requires or consumes. The carpenter and the bricklayer go to the smith or the tool-maker for their tools; and the smith, never attempting to build a house for himself, dwells in one built by the combined labours of the carpenter and bricklayer. A tailor never makes shoes for his own use, he buys them of the shoemaker; and the shoemaker buys all the clothes he requires from the tailor. All these labourers find that they can most easily and readily procure whatever they want by each one labouring only at his own trade. The people who went from Europe to North America and New Holland, and there, in contact with the savages whom they supplanted, proved the superior productive power of civilized man, carried with them the arts and practices of Europe, and were of different trades. Among these savages, however, they found few or no persons having distinct occupations. Each provided as well as he could for his own wants, and practised all the arts known among this rude people. In all uncivilized societies each individual provides himself with food, and makes most of the inefficient instruments he uses. He builds his own hut, and hews out his own canoe, with the stone hatchet he has previously made; he makes the line or net—or perhaps it is made by his wife—with which he ensnares fish; and he kills the wild animal which will form probably his only food, by means of a bow and arrow fashioned by his own hand. The appropriation of men to distinct and separate occupations, the establishment of different trades, the exclusive businesses pursued by individuals which takes place in civilized society, is called, in the language of Political Economy, DIVISION OF LABOUR.


In almost all countries it seems to bear a close relation to their wealth. Savages, among whom there is no division of labour, are wretchedly poor: on the contrary, the inhabitants of this densely-peopled empire, amounting to twenty-two millions, produce, it is said, as much wealth annually as the eighty-eight millions of people who are, comparatively, sparingly scattered over the United States of America, the empire of Russia and the kingdom of France; and there can be no doubt that in these three countries, particularly the two former, division of labour is not carried to such an extent as in Great Britain. This statement rests on public documents published in each country, though probably it is somewhat too favourable for Britain, from the valuations having been made from custom-house returns, and perhaps in a depreciated currency. It is particularly deserving of attention as far as the United States of America and Russia are concerned, because they are comparatively new or lately-peopled countries, while Great Britain is an old country; and because it is generally said that productive power decreases as the land is used, and as people are crowded together. Such an opinion is quite erroneous, from its not taking into account the effects of division of labour, and of the progress of knowledge. It looks only at the land; of the capabilities of which, as an instrument aiding production, we know as little as we did of the productive powers of the atmosphere before the steam-engine was invented.


To show in detail, the effects of division of labour, I shall prefer extracting a passage from the writings of Mr. M'Culloch and Adam Smith, to offering any illustrations of my own. The latter has explained these effects so ably, that all subsequent writers have done little more than copy his remarks: something has been added by Mr. M'Culloch, and I therefore take a passage from his book, in which his own observations are embodied with those of Dr. Smith.


"Dr. Smith," says Mr. M'Culloch, "who has treated this subject in the most masterly manner, has classed the circumstances which conspire to increase the productive powers of industry, when labour is divided, under the following heads:—First, to the increase of the skill and dexterity of every particular workman; second, to the saving of time, which is commonly lost in passing from one particular employment to another; and, third, to the circumstance of the division of employments having a tendency to facilitate the invention of machines, and of processes for abridging and saving labour.


"1st. Respecting the improvement of the skill and dexterity of the labourer. It is sufficiently plain that when a person's whole attention is devoted to one branch of business, when all the energies of his mind and the powers of his body are made to converge, as it were, to a single point, he must attain a degree of proficiency in that particular branch, to which no individual engaged in a variety of occupations can be expected to reach. A peculiar play of the muscles, or sleight of hand, is necessary to perform the simplest operation in the best and most expeditious manner; and this can only be acquired by habitual and constant practice.


"To take an example therefore, from a very trifling manufacture, but one in which the division of labour has been very often taken notice of, the trade of a pin-maker: a workman not educated to this business, (which the division of labour has rendered a distinct trade,) nor acquainted with the use of the machinery employed in it, (to the invention of which the same division of labour has probably given occasion,) could scarce, perhaps, with his utmost industry, make one pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. But in the way in which this business is now carried on, not only the whole work is a peculiar trade, but it is divided into a number of branches, of which the greater part are likewise peculiar trades. One man draws out the wire; another straights it; a third cuts it; a fourth points it; a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head: to make the head requires two or three distinct operations; to put it on is a peculiar business; to whiten the pins is another; it is even a trade by itself to put them into the paper; and the important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations, which, in some manufactories, are all performed by distinct hands, though in others the same man will sometimes perform two or three of them. I have seen a small manufactory of this kind, where ten men only were employed, and where some of them consequently performed two or three distinct operations. But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day. But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth, part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations."


So far Dr. Smith:—I have been informed, that in the metropolis each pin-maker can make nearly double four thousand pins a day; and also, that the attempts hitherto made to manufacture pins by machinery have all failed. For this purpose no machine has yet been invented which equals the dexterity and despatch of the workman: and in general, those machines which have been used, form the head of the pin by compressing a small portion of the metal, which renders the tiny instrument brittle, and, when complete, less fit for the many purposes to which pins are put.


"The effect," continues Mr. M'Culloch, "of the division of labour, in preventing that waste of time in moving from one employment to another, which must always take place when an individual is engaged in different occupations, is even more obvious than the advantage derived from the improvement of the skill and dexterity of the labourer. When the same individual carries on different employments, in different and perhaps distant places, and with different sets of tools, it is plainly impossible he can avoid losing a considerable portion of time in passing between them. If the different businesses in which a labourer is to be engaged could be carried on in the same workshop, the loss of time would be less, but even in that case it would be considerable. 'A man,' as Dr. Smith has justly observed, 'commonly saunters a little in changing from one business to another. When he first begins his work, he is seldom keen or hearty; his mind is said not to go along with it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies himself in good earnest. The habit of sauntering, and of indolent and careless application, which is naturally, or rather necessarily, acquired by every country workman, who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in working different ways almost every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any rigorous application, even on the most pressing occasion. Independent, therefore, of his deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing.'*34


"3d. With regard to the effect of the division of employment in facilitating the invention of machines and processes for abridging and saving labour, it is obvious that those engaged in any branch of industry, must be more likely to discover easier and readier methods for carrying it on, when the whole attention of their minds is devoted exclusively to it, than if it were dissipated among a variety of objects. But it is a mistake to suppose, as has been sometimes done, that it is only the inventive genius of workmen and artificers that is whetted and improved by the division of labour. As society advances, the study of particular branches of science and of philosophy becomes the principle or sole occupation of the most ingenious men. Chemistry becomes a distinct science from natural philosophy; the physical astronomer separates himself from the astronomical observer, the political economist from the politician, and each meditating exclusively, or principally, on his peculiar department of science, attains to a degree of proficiency and expertness to which the general scholar seldom or never reaches."*35


I have already mentioned the reservation with which the statement, that division of labour promotes the invention of machines ought to be adopted. It contributes to the progress of knowledge as society advances; but knowledge and invention, to a certain extent, in every age, precede and give occasion to division of labour. Great part, indeed, of the beneficial effects of the latter arise from its promoting our knowledge of particular objects; but that manual skill or sleight of hand which it bestows, seems, in general, not equal in its effects to mental labour. "A machine," says Mrs. Marcet, "has been invented in the United States of America, for the purpose of cutting nails out of iron, the operation of which is so rapid, that it forms two hundred and fifty perfect nails in the space of one minute, or fifteen thousand in an hour."*36


The accuracy of Dr. Smith's remarks on the beneficial effects of division of labour, must be perceptible to every man, and some of my readers are probably acquainted with more striking examples of these beneficial effects than those I have quoted. All men seem fully aware of the advantages of one person being a farmer, another a carpenter, and a third a weaver; and in daily practice, the division of labour is extended beyond the limit at which it is settled by rule. When two or more men of the same trade are employed about the same job, each undertakes some separate part: in house-building, for example, one carpenter planes up and prepares the wood, while another mortices the parts of the window-frames together, instead of each completing a window-frame by himself, though to do the whole of such a job is only a part of the business of a carpenter. This division of labour, which individuals find enables them to complete a given task in less time, or with greater ease, must be proportionably beneficial, when acted on in all trades and in society at large.


It is however indispensable to remark, that all the benefits of this practice naturally centre in the labourer; belong to him, and contribute to his ease or add to his opulence. It increases his skill, by allowing his attention to be uninterruptedly fixed on a single operation; it saves his time, by making no change of tools or of employment necessary; and it facilitates his invention of those machines that are adapted to the single and simple operations, which, in consequence of division of labour, constitute the whole task of each individual. By no single machine, perhaps, except man himself, could we perform the whole process of manufacturing a piece of cloth out of the raw material; but when the complicated process of shearing the sheep, cleansing the wool, carding, spinning, weaving, dressing, and dyeing it, has been separated into distinct operations, performed by different individuals,—machines can be, and are, made to execute most of them, even with more precision than can be done by the unaided hand. Why labourers actually reap no benefit from division of labour, why their tasks seem rather to augment than lessen, with all those improvements which add to their skill and productive power, in such a degree even as to have given rise to an opinion, that division of labour inflicts on them a serious injury, cannot, in this part of the book, be explained. But as all the advantages derived from division of labour naturally centre in, and naturally belong to the labourers, if they are deprived of them, and in the progress of society those only are enriched by their improved skill who never labour,—this must arise from unjust appropriation; from usurpation and plunder in the party enriched, and from consenting submission in the party impoverished.


If we could not learn from an inquiry into the origin of this practice, and into its limits, in what manner numberless social regulations check division of labour,—and how much more benevolent and kind to man is the Author of his instincts and passions than the legislator who pretends to protect and save him from their consequences,—the mere statement of its advantages, outweighing the benefits conferred on our race even by the wisest lawgivers, must kindle in us a lively curiosity to know whence it arises and where it ends. Though it is not equal in all countries, yet it takes place among all the tribes of men, and all the nations of the earth, whatever may be their religious creed or the form of their government; in whatever state of society they may exist; and whoever may have been their legislators. It has no connexion, therefore, with positive institutions, and is in no respect the offspring of legislation. In the free republic of the United States of America, and in despotic Russia, in enterprising England, and in retrograding Turkey, among the careful and industrious Dutchmen, and the proud and indolent Spaniards, under the varying laws of Europe, and the almost invariable institutions of Asia, in Africa, where life is held on the insecure tenure of some miscreant emperor or king's caprice, and in countries where it is sacrificed according to some misnamed regular, but not less revolting because cold-blooded, proceedings of what is called law,—in all countries, and under all kinds of political institutions, division of labour takes place; and men, unbidden by their rulers, follow the beneficial custom of each confining his attention and exertions to some particular department of industry. "The practice," says Dr. Smith, "is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals. It is not the result of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion:"*37 it must therefore arise from some universal and natural principle, like that which compels man in every climate, and on every soil, to eat bread by the sweat of his brow. He ascribes it to an instinctive propensity to barter; but it has, I think, a more obvious source; in which, when rightly understood, we may find one example of the many beautiful and simple contrivances by which nature seems to have provided for the continued prosperity of our species,—proving, to use the language of Mrs. Marcet, "that the hand of Providence, which we are chiefly accustomed to trace in the natural (material) world, is no less conspicuous in moral life."

Notes for this chapter

Wealth of Nations, i. p. 14.
Article, Political Economy, Supp. Encyclop. Britt.
Conversations on Political Economy.
Wealth of Nations, book I, chap. i.

Part I, Chapter V

End of Notes

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