How Should Labor be Divided?

Bella Lyon/ AM Summer School/ Ms. Hansson

The division labor is necessary in every nation and group of people. Realistically, one person cannot do everything by themselves all at once. Therefore, the work will naturally be divided between the people. But how does one find the most efficient way to divide the labor? As we learned in class: if the work is specialized based on efficiency and productivity, the economy will prosper to its capabilities. In other words, the person who can create the most books should produce books and the person who can produce the most bread should do just that. This way of working will push the productivity onto the curve of the production possibilities frontier. The hierarchies of the labor then are soon defined in an economy also based on skills. In a capitalist system, any person has the ability to try anything. That way they can choose what produces the best wage based on their skill. Capitalists can work towards a greater goal for themselves. For example, the American Dream is based on the idea that a person who is born into a poor family can work hard, achieve success, and move up from the poor class. In a socialist system, however, a person is pretty much born into their class and follows the career choices of their parents. But if they never try any other job, how do they know they are efficiently using their skills and earning the most money they possibly can? Many scholars have different views of what the division of labor means. More importantly, some views conflict each other on how labor should be divided. From these different writings, a medium where labor is divided proportionally is investigated.

In Abundance and Scarcity, Frédéric Bastiat argues that division of labor is created by exchange. He believes that the labor is divided between the wants of the producer and the consumer. He states, “In society, with the division of labor that it entails, the production and the consumption of an object are not performed by the same individual.” Though the interest of each consumer and producer opposes each other; every person is a producer and a consumer. We produce so that we can consume. Looking at the relationship between the two positions more in depth, it is seen that they directly affect each other. This relationship was demonstrated the movie shown in class about the relationship between the American economy and Chinese economy.  A woman lost her job because her branch was being shut down in order to open a factory of the company in China. The company did this to be able to keep other branches running in the United States, while still earning capital and profit from the factory and cheap labor in China. Ironically, because of the cheap labor in China, the newly unemployed woman can buy products at Wal-Mart for sufficiently lower prices.  The cheap labor hinders her as a producer but helps her as a consumer. Bastiat describes how he viewed the division of labor and what it is. He did not go into detail about how he understands labor should be divided. Adam Smith, on the other hand, cited his strong opinion in The Wealth of Nations.

In the text, Smith states that labor should be specialized based on productivity. This means that one person will perform one task over, and over, and over. But wouldn’t this become a little repetitive? Smith argues that because the labor does not require much skill, more and more people will be able to work. As a result, however, the wages decrease and the workers earn less money. Labor becomes cheaper, workers are poorer, but is the economy better as a whole? Smith defends his views by relating the workers to machines. Machines are created to be more efficient. They produce more products in more time, therefore using less money and producing more capital. The time it takes to produce the product is cut significantly, so more can be produced for less money.  Unfortunately, this causes the value of the product to decrease just like the value of the workers decreases. A question arises: is it better to have more people employed for less money or less people employed who receive more money? This is where many people find Smith’s view to be flawed.

To try to answer the question above, the economies of China and America will demonstrate my reasoning. China employs over 112 million workers: the highest manufacturing workforce in the world. The average worker earns 81 cents an hours, which is about 2.7 percent of their American counterparts. Though the United States does not employ as many people as China, workers are paid higher wages because the workers’ jobs require more skill. The economies as wholes compete closely with each other, but American workers are paid much more. I believe that the capitalist system works better than China’s because workers are valued and the economy still runs efficiently.

Scholars like Marx and Aristotle would believe that Smith’s division of labor is not efficient for the common good of the workers. People might argue that the workers are too specialized. But how do economists know when the labor has become too divided?

Like machines, the workers do the same thing for hours each day. Their job does not require much mental capacity or activity. Each job is dependent on another person’s job. At Ursuline, many groups have to work together in clubs and for projects. So would the group work better if they specialize or better if they all work together on the same task? Emily, Katherine, and Grace need to bake 30 cupcakes in one day. If they specialize like Smith suggests, assuming that each task requires the same amount of skill, Emily will make the batter for each batch, Katherine will pour the batter and cook each batch, and Grace will put the icing on each cupcake. The girls will work batch by batch, passing them along from Emily to Katherine to Grace, like an assembly line. If each girl completes their task, they will finish by the deadline. But if one girl is sick and incapable of working, they might not finish on time. If Katherine cannot cook the batches of cupcakes, there will be a gap in between Emily and Grace. Who will bake the cupcakes? Now Emily will have to cut time from making batter in order to cook the batches or Grace will have to cut time from icing to cook the cupcakes. Either way the girls would have to lose time from their own task to make up for Katherine’s absence.  Therefore, this system is not very efficient and is too specialized. The system would be more efficient the girls did not depend on each other completely.

In the Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx explains the exact doubts people express about Smith’s division of labor. Marx believes that when workers are doing only one thing as their jobs, they lose all of the charm of a worker. “He becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.” The workers will all begin to hate their jobs. The more and more specialized they become the more alike to each other they become. As a result, they become “soldiers,” and it is easier for them to rise up against their superiors and revolt. These revolts seen in history are described by Marx as a Proletarian Revolution, in which the proletariat, the working class, revolts against the bourgeoisie, the wealthy upper class. Aristotle would explain the workers unhappiness as the absence of reason. Since their jobs do not require much skill, they are not implementing any reason. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle argues “that happiness is the same as a life in which we exercise our capacity to reason to a full extent.” We are happier in a Capitalist society because we use more reason. Labor should be divided, but not make workers into machines that do not require reason.


Aristotle. 350 B.C.E. The Nicomachean Ethics. Greece: Aristotle.

Bastiat, Frédéric, and Patrick James Stirling. 1922. Economic sophisms. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.

“Facts about China: MANUFACTURING & WORKFORCE | 2011-2012 statistics.” China travel guide | Tips, top tourist attractions & funny stuff!.    china/manufacturing-chinese-workforce/ (accessed June 24, 2013).

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. 1967. The Communist Manifesto. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Smith, Adam, and Andrew S. Skinner. 1970. The wealth of nations. Books I-III. Harmondsworth:     Penguin.


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