What is Freedom? (16): Does the Division of Labor Enhance or Reduce Freedom?

Adam Smith is famous for the argument that freedom needs the division of labor. Without division of labor, everyone needs to be his or her own “butcher, baker and brewer”, leaving no leisure time for self-chosen activities. Individual home production of all basic necessities is inefficient compared to industrial production aided by division of labor. Division of labor allows the mechanization of labor, and distributes producers into their personal field of speciality and talent. As a result, divided labor is much more productive. Being more productive it yields more social leisure time, and hence more freedom.

Conversely, individual home production does not allow people to specialize and focus on activities for which they are best suited in terms of talent, inclination, power etc. Neither does it make mechanization possible, at least not on an industrial scale. Division of labor, and the market that comes with it (if you divide labor and no longer do everything yourself, you’ll need to exchange the products of labor), liberates people from a large number of tedious and unproductive task, many of which are not well suited to their talents.

Karl Marx, while agreeing with Smith about the efficiency and freedom-enhancing consequences of the division of labor and the concomitant market economy (he was no romantic), has some well-known and convincing criticisms. The workers in a highly developed and industrial system of divided labor lose their character of producers. Given the importance in Marx’ view of working and of making things, a worker in a modern factory is by definition a stunted human being, alienated from the product of his work and exclusively occupied with detailed tasks that are as monotonous as incomprehensible. The worker can no longer express himself in his product and therefore can’t develop himself. He is not free.

The market exchange of produced goods is also alienating in Marx’ view: we no longer deal with specific persons when we trade, but with a large amorphous group of people who we don’t know nor want to know. For Marx, a large part of freedom is to be able to produce and to engage in normal relationships with one another. He clearly saw how divided labor and the market economy that goes with it reduce that freedom. And his lesson is not heard anymore. Those who care about freedom should listen more carefully, to both Marx and Smith.

More posts in this series are here.


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