Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Adam Smith Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for an irregular series of posts.

Today's quotation comes from Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations. Smith argues that there are three main reasons why the division of labor significantly increases productivity. First is that specialization leads to an increase in proficiency of that job and that means better output in shorter time. Second, the time loss in moving between jobs is avoided. But it is the third that I want to prod here. The division of labor into individual tasks will facilitate technological advances, once we clearly delineate tasks, we will be more likely to create machinery to do that task more efficiently.

Nothing too interesting there, until he posits that the division of labor in society leads to a class of inventors who are not the ones using the machines.

All the improvements in machinery, however, have by no means been the inventions of those who had occasion to use the machines. Many improvements have been made by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines, when to make them became the business of a particular trade; and some by that of those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing, but to observe every thing; and who, upon that account are often capable of combining together the powers of the most distant and dissimilar objects.
Set aside the wonderful phrase "those who are called philosophers or men of speculation, whose trade it is not to do any thing" which is incredibly tempting to take out of context. The idea is that having people outside the endeavor brings fresh insight and this leads to progress.

Is this "thinking outside the box" overrated? Are those who observe, but do not do really have the understanding, the ones we ought to look towards to contribute insight? What Smith, in essence, is creating here is the position of "management consultant." My grandfather used to run a belt factory and would talk for long periods of time about the number of businesses he saw go under once they brought in "efficiency experts," people who studied business, but not that business. On the other hand, once you are indoctrinated, doesn't that put blinders on you? You get trapped in the rut of "that's how it is done."

So, fresh blood or no business talking about what you don't understand? Can the division of labor be so divided that the tasks get alienated from the central process? Adam Smith, bullshit or not?

As usual, feel free to leave anything from a single word response to a dissertation.