April 14, 2019


The Division of Labor Is the Meaning of Life (KEVIN D. WILLIAMSON, April 14, 2019, National Review)

I  would like you to entertain, for a moment, an idea that might sound a little eccentric, or maybe as plain and obvious as a thing can be. It is this:

The division of labor is the meaning of life.

I do not mean this metaphorically or analogically, but literally. [...]

The division of labor among human beings is not a purely economic phenomenon--it is also a social and emotional one. The human need for other human beings is so deep as to be fundamental. This should, properly understood, complicate our understanding of individualism and our rhetoric about it.

In 21st-century human society, the mode of social life is so closely identified with the particularities of the division of labor that the two are practically identical. Even many of the so-called social issues are ultimately questions of the division of labor, for instance within marriage and family life, where changing attitudes toward sex (gender is a grammatical term) in relation to marriage, child-rearing, homosexuality, and other questions challenge ancient divisions of labor between men and women.

Which is to say, changes in the division of labor are by necessity changes in the mode of social life; radical, far-reaching, and sudden changes in the division of labor are, in the favorite term of Silicon Valley, "disruptive." [...]

What we call "globalization" is a sudden radical expansion in the worldwide division of labor--a miracle of human cooperation that, as such miracles so often are, goes mostly unappreciated and unloved, and often hated. Our globalization is hated for the same reason that Renaissance globalization was hated: It disrupts existing status arrangements and introduces new elements of insecurity and anxiety into communities whose members had believed their situations to be fixed, if not ordained--and who believe that they have a natural right to the fixity of those situations, and that the duty of the state is to secure them. Our Silicon Valley billionaires are denounced as "rootless cosmopolitans" (the phrase itself derives from the anti-Semitic socialist purges of the 1940s and 1950s) and are resented for their transnational lives and transnational interests, as well as for their preference for self-regulation and their slipperiness in the face of merely national mandates. Like the merchant princes of Florence, they lead lives that seem impossibly indulgent and patronize cultural and political forces that perplex, irritate, and offend the partisans of peasant conservatism.

At the other end of the economic spectrum, special vitriol is reserved for a new kind of division of labor: the casual "gig" work associated with firms such as Uber. This opportunistic work provides important income to many people who could not otherwise get it as conveniently, and it performs the important function of allowing people of more modest means to convert their property into capital. But this comes with none of the old assurances: health insurance, pensions, the gold watch at the end of a long tenure of service, etc. It is easy to be sentimental about those old assurances, and to forget that almost nobody in 2019 really wants a 1950 standard of living (you can have it--cheap!), but we should keep in mind that the economy has evolved the way it has because people have made certain choices that comport with their preferences in the face of the unalterable reality that is scarcity.

That makes some of us uneasy, if not enraged.

And just as the alienated Europeans of the Renaissance turned to new sources of identity and meaning, so do we, in everything from the slightly comical turn to neo-Paganism in the quest for a unified "European" identity (which is not entirely distinct from the white-nationalist tendency, even if not quite subsumed by it) to more serious forms of political and cultural radicalism. Of course the feudal way of life was not as ancient as its practitioners imagined, and if God had a stronger preference for it, He has not made Himself heard on the issue. But neither was the immediate postwar economic and social order of the United States divinely ordained, or even normal, being, as it was, based on extraordinary economic and political conditions related to the destruction of Europe and its productive capital by the war.

By any meaningful standard of measurement, these are, materially speaking, the best years the human race has ever experienced--and the best years the American people have ever experienced, too. Health, wealth, safety, freedom, opportunity--never better. When Calvin Coolidge was president of the United States of America and hence the most powerful man in the world, his son died because of a blister on his toe acquired during a game of tennis. It's a different and better world.

The division of labor giveth, but it also taketh away. The pains we are feeling in the developed world are growing pains, but they are painful nonetheless. We may like the fruits of disruption--forget that "may," we like and love the fruits of disruption--but the process itself is uncomfortable and bewildering, and it imposes real losses on some people, too, mainly those who are not well-positioned to adapt themselves to a new mode of work and hence a new mode of life.

Globalization is building a bigger beehive. It is recruiting new cells into the organism, with new and very fine modes of specialization. In that sense, it is growth, literally: smaller political economies growing into a larger one.

There is no alternative to the division of labor, because there is no alternative to life.

Except the obvious one.

The history of the economic division of labor is a tale of declining labor and increasing wealth.  At first blush, this would seem an unalloyed good.  As we progressively overcome the curse of Cain, how can we not be enjoying the mindless labor-free Eden we're achieving? Well, the truth is we didn't enjoy it when it was given to us in the first place, thus, The Fall. So it can come as no surprise that we are restless now.

We proved ourselves great at producing better and cheaper widgets, altering the reality of scarcity of which Mr. Williamson speaks.  Through a better redistribution of that wealth we can alleviate the real material losses of the some people and smooth out the merely financial disruption.  But what then? 

Happily, we have a great advantage over the first men, we have a culture, societies, communities, and institutions into which we can direct our social and emotional labor. Indeed, this labor can/must replace the economic labor that we are decreasingly called to provide.  Society must value it and we must engage in it. The hard part is that we must do so in the terrifying face of a world without scarcity to drive us. We must self-motivate to be good, which all of human history and the Bible tells us is not our strong suit.

As Francis Fukuyama warned, the End of History is no guarantee of human happiness.

Posted by at April 14, 2019 7:08 AM