What Would Adam Smith Say?

Is the division of labor still maintained today as Adam Smith defined it?

When Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776, it was in the midst of emerging industrial capitalism.  When he spoke about the division of labor, it was in the same context.  This meant that the market was small, businesses were small, and production took quite a long time when products were individually manufactured.  However, once labor began to become divided, and different people specialized in different stages of production, the economy began to expand; it became easier. This expanding economy was good for the market, and good for the individual workers because they could produce more in a shorter period of time, increasing the amount of money that could be made.

The division of labor was incredibly good for business and industry because it increased the number of goods that could be produced in the same amount of time.  It is worth mentioning that Smith was on the side of the emerging industrial capitalists.  This lent itself to being on the side of the worker, who realized higher standards of living, and to promoting the overall wealth of the nation, through the efficiency of production and the division of labor.

Because of this, we assume that Adam Smith was on the side of, or at least not in opposition to the worker.  That is, as labor becomes more specialized, and technological invention and innovation take hold, workers become more efficient and productive, which results in higher wages and a growing economy.

Is this still true today? Does the division of labor and technological innovation still promote the wealth of the nation? The division of labor, taken to its logical conclusion, produces mundane, mindless tasks, which require less and less skill and earn lower and lower wages. Increased specialization and innovation results in the displacement of workers and the phasing out of these jobs. As an advocate of the division of labor, it would seem now that Adam Smith is pitted against the best interests of the labor force.

However, it is important to take Smith in context.  It is possible that Smith may have said that we have gone too far – the division of labor has deskilled workers and technology has left them unemployed. Smith would have said that technology should replace these mundane tasks but not at the expense of workers’ livelihood. 

A dark matter hurricane is crashing into Earth

Giving our solar system a "slap in the face."

Surprising Science
  • A stream of galactic debris is hurtling at us, pulling dark matter along with it
  • It's traveling so quickly it's been described as a hurricane of dark matter
  • Scientists are excited to set their particle detectors at the onslffaught
Keep reading Show less

We are heading for a New Cretaceous, not for a new normal

The climate change we're witnessing is more dramatic than we might think.

Image credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center from Greenbelt, MD, USA
Surprising Science

A lazy buzz phrase – 'Is this the new normal?' – has been doing the rounds as extreme climate events have been piling up over the past year. To which the riposte should be: it's worse than that – we're on the road to even more frequent, more extreme events than we saw this year.

Keep reading Show less

New study reveals what time we burn the most calories

Once again, our circadian rhythm points the way.

Photo: Victor Freitas / Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Seven individuals were locked inside a windowless, internetless room for 37 days.
  • While at rest, they burned 130 more calories at 5 p.m. than at 5 a.m.
  • Morning time again shown not to be the best time to eat.
Keep reading Show less