Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
384 of 1105



DIVISION OF LABOR. The division of employments is a natural consequence of the life of man in society. It is, moreover, an element of productive power and of intellectual development. In the infancy of society each individual, each family, manufactures with difficulty and in an imperfect manner the objects it needs; the wisest, the old man of the tribe, preserves in his head the treasure, as yet very meagre, of acquired knowledge, which he endeavors to transmit by word of mouth to those who are to survive him. But as tribes grow larger, and improve, they come to sanction and maintain the right of the individual property of each man in the fruit of his labor; they come to understand the utility of exchanges freely consented to; and henceforth each man can devote himself to the special occupation for which he feels himself peculiarly fitted. He achieves greater results in the branch of labor to which he thus devotes himself, and produces more than is personally necessary to him; he lacks, on the other hand, everything that his individual labor is unable to supply, and exchange provides him with the means of establishing an equilibrium between what he produces himself and what he wants but can not produce; he gives his surplus in return for what he requires, and thus barters the services which he renders for those which he himself has occasion for.


—When nations become greater and more enlightened, the division of labor becomes more marked. Certain individuals now devote themselves to hunting, to fishing, to the cultivation of the soil, others to manufactures: others there are again who devote themselves exclusively to the culture of the mind: these latter discover the laws of nature which God has placed at the service of man, whom he has charged to discover them and turn them to useful account. Thus they effectively help in the production of the wealth, upon the aggregate of which society subsists.


—In each branch of production the division of labor tends to extend and multiply; farming adapts itself to the nature of the soil, and to the atmospheric condition of the land; in one place cereals are grown, in another the vine, in another cattle are raised: and these various products are afterward exchanged, one for another or for manufactured articles.


—In the industries which convert raw material into manufactured products, the division of employments is soon pushed further still. One man becomes an iron worker; another hews wood; others still are weavers and cotton spinners.


—To facilitate exchanges, yet another great industry is developed, namely, that which undertakes to place all products within the reach of the consumer, either by carrying them from one place to another, or by the simple division, on the spot, of the merchandise into quantities proportioned to individual wants: this is commerce. Here, too, division of employments soon takes place; the same merchants do not engage in sea, land and river transportation; the same merchant does not sell groceries, hardware and woolen goods. To facilitate commercial operations, a class of intermediary agents spring up. bankers, brokers, commission men.


—It is plain that the division of labor is both a consequence and a cause of the development of nations, and of the progress which they make in all branches of human knowledge. The division of labor tends constantly to increase, and is checked only by the limited extent of the market, that is to say, by the limitation which the wants of the population put to the possible sale of each kind of product.


—In countries, remote from cities, where agricultural operations on a large scale are carried on, those who work in the fields cultivate, too, near their cottages, vegetables for their own use; while in the neighborhood of large cities, kitchen gardeners make it their sole business to cultivate vegetables and fruit; often even they devote themselves to a single branch of gardening; there are some who make floriculture, and even the culture of a single kind of flower, a specialty.


—In villages in which consumption is limited, commercial industry does not admit of a division of labor; in such places there is often but a single shop, a grocer's, who sells sugar, coffee, candles, clothing, nails and stationery; while, on the other hand, in cities each of these branches becomes the object of a different commercial enterprise; each one of which frequently grows to an importance of great dimensions. Thus it is that in metropolitan cities huge emporiums exist for the exclusive sale of tea, candles or chocolate.


—But it is especially in manufacturing industries that the division of employments has attained the most marvelous results, and that its influence is unparalleled in the increase of the values produced. Hence, the first economists who critically examined the vast mechanism of the production of wealth were struck at once with this great phenomenon.


—Adam Smith says, in his "Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations": "The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor, and the greater part of the skill, dexterity and judgment with which it is anywhere directed or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor." (Book i., c. 1.) And to make the full bearing of this observation understood he instances the case of the pin-maker, and shows what an immense difference there would be between the results of a man who should attempt, alone and unaided, the manufacture of pins, and those obtained in a workshop where the labor is suitably subdivided among men skilled each in a distinct branch of their manufacture. Here one draws the wire, another straightens it, a third cuts it, while a fourth points it; it is a distinct process to prepare one end to receive the head, while the head itself is the result of two or three different operations. Then the pins have to be whitened; and lastly the perforation of the paper and the wrapping up are additional and separate departments. It is thus that in the important industry of pin-making there are 18 operations, which in certain factories are the work of as many different hands. The establishment which Adam Smith visited was, as he says, small, and indifferently furnished with suitable machinery; only 10 workmen were employed, and yet it produced 48,000 pins a day, that is, an average of 4,800 apiece. In the presence of such production, and, owing to improved methods much greater to-day than when Smith wrote, how insignificant indeed would be the results of one attempting alone the manufacture of pins; scarcely would he perhaps by dint of the hardest labor make 20 in a day.


—J. B. Say has taken as his example the manufacture of playing-cards, and there is no branch of industry in which immensely greater results are not obtained from the co-operation of individual effort and the division of employments—If Adam Smith had extended his analysis, he might have shown that many other partial operations are divided among different workmen to complete that small product of human industry the value of which is so little, and which is called a pin. He might have directed attention to the work of the miner who brings to the surface of the earth the ore of copper, and to that of the miner having a different origin and habits, who, in another part of the world perhaps, has had to dig out the ore of tin necessary for alloyage and for whitening the pin. But in addition to the labor necessary to bring these metals to the requisite degree of purity, they must besides have been transported by sea and by land to the pin-maker's manufactory How many different operations divided among an infinite number of workmen have not been necessary in the mere construction of the ship employed in carrying the tin from a port of India to England! And what shall we say of the compass which has been used in guiding this vessel across the seas? What an amount of time and of observations of different kinds, by a great number of individuals, was necessary to put mankind in possession of the compass! The imagination is appalled at the extent of the research needed to exhibit all the labor which has been necessary to bring to perfection the most trifling product, in a single branch of any manufacturing industry of our day.


—To return to the consideration of the increase in productive force effected in a branch of manufactures by division of labor. Adam Smith attributes it to three causes: first, to the greater dexterity acquired by each workman in a single and often repeated act; second, to the saving of time commonly lost in passing from one kind of employment to another, and lastly, to the stimulus given to the mind concentrated upon a single purpose, to invent more rapid processes, or even machines to supplement human labor.


—Undoubtedly the first two of these causes have a great effect; the saving of time is an important consideration in industry, bearing at once on the individual labor of the workman and on the capital employed in the undertaking, the interest being less heavy the shorter the term for which the interest is borrowed.


—As to the invention of expeditious methods and of machines for supplementing human labor, division of labor certainly conduces to it, and instances can be given of more than one improvement in mechanism due to the workmen themselves, the discovery of which has permitted of economizing and replacing labor. It must at the same time be observed that it is not alone to the division of labor in workshops, that the great and numerous discoveries constantly made in the arts and sciences are due. The honor of these discoveries belongs rather to the division of labor among all classes; it is to the power that the mind can attain when devoted to one single line of study and investigation, that the greatest achievements are due, that is to say, the discovery of all the laws of nature we are acquainted with, and the combination of means to be employed to render them practically useful.


—The advantages of the division of labor in the production of wealth are, therefore, incontestable; but we must not forget to call attention to the drawbacks which may be consequences of these advantages The most glaring and one specially calculated to attract the attention of generous minds, is the effect which the restriction of a man to a single piece of work always the same and constantly repeated, may have upon his moral development. It is a melancholy thing, it has been observed, for one reaching the end of life to have to realize that his every day has been passed in making pin heads. Those who present the disadvantages of the division of labor under this dramatic form are, in part at least, unjust to humanity. Man must not be thus personified in the only work which it is his business to do; though a worker, he is one of a family; he is a citizen; in addition to the labor which he gives in exchange for the services of others of which he has need, he participates in all the advantages of the society in which he lives; he has his share in the progress made about him. In all vocations the working man has intervals of rest, and it is especially according to the use to which he turns his spare moments that man can elevate himself and come to enjoy the general advantages offered him by society. A steady and unvaried occupation does not necessarily dull the mind; and the artist who, during a year or two, grows pale over the same plate of copper or steel that he may produce a master-piece, does not live wholly amid the regular lines traced successively by his graver.


—It would, moreover, narrow the question of the division of labor to see it and to study it within the walls of a manufactory only; it is not less worthy of observation in the little work shops of a great city like Paris. There, occupations are not only apportioned among the workingmen employed, but also among a great number of petty manufacturers, each the possessor of a small capital, each conducting for himself some undertaking and affording employment to one or two workmen and an apprentice. A single little article of Parisian manufacture is thus often the result of the successive co-operation of many; for instance, the wood-work of a lady's work box is made by a cabinet maker; each separate article which goes to complete it comes from a distinct trade, that of the turner, the cutler, the engraver, etc.; while finally, another tradesman, a furnisher, having selected these different articles, fits up the inside of the box. In the manufacture of artificial flowers the division of the labor of workmen and of manufacturers into departments is carried to quite as great an extent. The manufacture of what are called the preparations for flowers is very extensive, and gives rise to important industries; there are color makers, and mould makers, those who crimp the cloth, and those who make the stamens, the seeds and other accessories, and all these different people hand over their productions to the monteurs; among these latter, again, some make buds only, others roses, and others mourning flowers, and so on. This great division of labor largely reduces the cost of production, and the article is of improved quality. It may be observed, also, that among this vast laboring class where each one's employment is so narrow, quickness of wit and intelligence is developed to a much greater extent than in vocations where work is less subdivided.


—Thus division of labor greatly facilitates and increases production; but it is at the same time a material aid to investigation and to the development of the sciences. Hence its influence is as deserving the attention of philosophers as of economists.


384 of 1105

Return to top