Division of Labour

This is my answer to a Philosophy Stack Exchange question about the division of labour. I’ve put the text below in case it gets deleted or something.

The division of labour is a “micro-level” as well as a societal phenomenon.

It means that different individuals are “coerced” into doing different parts of larger projects and that the labour is divided rather than produced by any single or by the preferences of a single individual only.

This of course has numerous implications for e.g. the working lives of individuals. Some are coerced into different jobs than others. Some are coerced into unfun or unfulfilling jobs. Some are expressing other than their genuine interests. But some things still need to be done.

The division of labour is just another name for people specialising on stuff they are good at.

It is true that some things need to be done. Sometimes they are done as a result of people doing stuff that is boring. For example, working on an assembly line may be boring if the worker has to do the same task over and over again. But why should a boring task should have to be done by a person? If a person can do X, then why doesn’t he write down an explanation of how to do X and construct a machine to do it? The answer is that he doesn’t know how to do this, and he doesn’t want to learn.

A machine to do the assembly worker’s task would be an improvement in the vast bulk of cases. Machines don’t need to go to the toilet or to lunch. They don’t make mistakes through boredom or carelessness. So there need not be any downside.

Sometimes an employer would not welcome such an innovation and wouldn’t know how to evaluate it. But in that case, there is nothing to stop the worker from solving the problem in his spare time and starting his own business, other than lack of inclination to do what is required.

You might say that this amounts to coercing the assembly line worker. But what has happened is that the worker has been offered a range of options for how to live his life, and has picked one of the options. He could have decided not to take the options on offer but create his own opportunity. As long as other people will voluntarily provide resources, he can do whatever he wants on the free market. There are people who play video games professionally. There are people who have sex professionally.

The only alternative to people voluntarily providing resources is to use or threaten physical violence against them. This is a bad idea partly because it will prevent people from acting on objections to the plan being imposed by force. If another person objects to some idea and declines to provide resources, you should be interested in understanding his objection. You might be able to answer the objection. And if you can’t meet the objection, you may have a bad idea and you should want to replace that bad idea. If you don’t want to replace your bad ideas, that’s your fault: you suck.

“Oh, Alan,” I hear you cry. “You’ve got me all wrong. I don’t want to use force. I just want the workplace to be democratic. Everybody will help make the decisions about what to do.” But this does not address the actual problem that leads to people doing stuff they don’t want. The problem is that some people don’t want to create new knowledge and take real responsibility for their lives. Such a person prefers to do a shitty job he hates instead of taking responsibility. If you want such people to take responsibility, you will have to coerce them unless you first come up with an argument to change their minds.

There is a further problem. Democracy doesn’t fit this situation. Democracy is an attempt to solve the following problem. A society with millions of people needs laws but not everybody is inclined to help write them. So then you have some people who specialise in doing that sort of thing: politicians. Voting is a mechanism to throw out incompetent or malicious politicians. If enough people vote for some other candidate, the politician loses his job if people don’t like the results he produced. They don’t have to argue with him about it, they can just remove him from office. But if you are in a small group at work, you need not vote. You can discuss a topic until you all reach a position you find unproblematic. If you adopt voting instead, then you won’t reach such a position and some people won’t like the position that was adopted as a result of the vote. You will just recreate the problem you wanted to solve.

If you want to understand more see


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About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

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