TCS Daily

A New Holiday: Division of Labor Day

By Josh Hendrickson - September 4, 2007 12:00 AM

When I was in the fifth grade, I decided to learn how to play the trumpet. Soon after, but long before I understood the concepts of economics, I realized that I did not possess an advantage - absolute or comparative - over fellow students. After several months of lessons, I decided to quit. Nevertheless, I still continue to enjoy the music that can be made by the trumpet given the proper talent of the musician.

Miles Davis's "Kind of Blue" is the greatest jazz album that I have ever heard. If I were given ten lifetimes, I could not produce anything remotely close - let alone better. Yet as someone without musical talent, I am still able to enjoy the beautiful sounds of the trumpet.

While this example illustrates the prosperity gains that one receives from specialization and the division of labor, it is important to realize the importance of this concept as it pertains to many other goods that are consumed on a daily basis. For example, it is easy for a failed trumpeter to appreciate Miles Davis. Yet those who perform what we would consider routine tasks (of which, we ourselves may have limited knowledge) should also be appreciated for the prosperity that they create.

Take, for example, something as simple as breakfast. This morning, I had eggs and bacon for breakfast, yet I did not raise the animals that produced this food. Along with my breakfast, I had a glass of orange juice. I do not grow oranges and, even if I did, I wouldn't know how to turn them into such a delicious drink. When I finished, I rinsed my plate in the ceramic sink, even though I have no talent making pottery. The water then promptly flowed through pipes I never installed nor manufactured.

Without the farmer, the plumber, the potter, or any others involved in the production, I would not have been able to enjoy my breakfast with the same satisfaction. In fact, without the existence of free exchange, the division of labor, and specialization I would not be able to enjoy a fraction of my prosperity - and it's only breakfast. Thus, just as with the Miles Davis album, the division of labor and the emergence of specialization allow me to experience prosperity I could not create myself in ten lifetimes.

I am not a sluggard nor am I an exception to the rule. The farmer, for example, is not a plumber or a potter either and therefore benefits just as I do from the division of labor. Similarly, when the farmer sends his child to the college, he benefits not only from the educators such as myself, but from the bricklayers, plasterers and drywallers, painters, and glaziers who helped construct the buildings. Once one begins to think in these terms, it is remarkable how much prosperity results from specialization.

All this brings me to the futility with which we celebrate Labor Day. Labor in and of itself is nothing to celebrate. If all we cared about was labor, the potter would only use his hands, the plumber would take apart his tools, and the farmer would destroy his tractor. It is important to remember that labor is a means to an end, not an end itself. It is the division of labor that creates specialization and improves efficiency and productivity, which therefore leads to greater prosperity for all.

Thus, if we truly want a holiday to celebrate labor, let's make Labor Day something different -- "Division of Labor Day."

Josh Hendrickson teaches economics at Wayne State University. He also maintains the blog entitled, "The Everyday Economist" (



Won't go for the Left becuase it isn't collectivist enough
"Workers of the world...divide your labor according to comparative advantage!" just doesn't cut it for the crooked union bosses who want to keep the graft machine running with their mafia buddies.

division of labour
Good article and comment by Z. Indeed, just plain labour day is an old time Marxist notion, but 'division of labour day' would celebrate the concept that led to the tremendous improvements in human life, particularly when people are free.

isn't Manual Labor a Mexican? - - -
If Labor day were properly observed, instead of lazing about barbequing on the patio, truly dedicated folks would work double shifts.

But seriously folks. On a macro and manifest scale the vital division of labor is a function of the number of people available among whom it can be divided. Labor is divided not just between individuals, but among populations, cultures, countries and among and inside professions, to the great benefit of all. The increase in the earth's population is a huge benefit in this respect. The earth's population is now topping out and, as a mathmatical certainty, will "soon" decrease. Will humankind suffer from lack of specialization as a result?

A better holiday
What kind of lesson or honor is in "Division of Labor Day"? Lets celebrate our ability to specialize our work? Well, I appreciate the concept to a point. Its just such a natural response, its so common and basic and instinctive, while great, its hardly reason to celebrate- our ability to specialize labor.

I think Labor Day as it is is pretty good. A nod to the working people, the men and women who did the back-breaking work to build our infrastructure and continue to do the hard work to maintain and expand our infrastructure. Managers and Executives get the lion's share of the perks and the big paychecks, why not have a day to honor the grunts? Honor people, not a process.

But even better, going with the author's comments but coming to a different conclusion, is to celebrate the fact that we're all interdependent. Indeed, the division of labor is a means to an end, not an end itself. Everyone would be better served to be mindful of the fact that none of us gets by on our own, we are all dependent on each other to have this fantastic life and this fantastic society. We are all the same, connected by this reality. This is the lesson I see in Hendrickson's piece. Our very prosperity depends on this interdependence, according to Hendrickson's article.

Don't get too specialized
Animals that fill an unique natural niche are always in danger of becoming extinct if that niche changes.
People filling market niches are in no less danger as we see so many jobs requiring technical skill go unfilled by US citizens.
The most successful animals are those which can adapt. Rats have been one of the most successful mammals due to their ability to adapt.
Humans have become successful for their ability to adapt their environment to their needs.
Specialization is good for the economy, but individuals need to be able to quickly adapt to changing markets and have more than one specialty they can adapt.

math certainty
The population is topping out soon not because of some 'math certantly', which implies that the earth can
t support more, but because as people get richer, they have less babies. Yours sounds like some phony Maltusian argument.

right again, D - - -
Touche', I should have pointed out that human cultures are now merrily committing reproductive suicide, particularly the most atheistic-socialist ones. In fact, with the current CO2 enrichment of the atmosphere, plants are now growing 10% faster while using less water to do it, making our earth greener, more lush, with much greater carrying capacity for plants and us plant-parasitic animals. As CO2, fortunately, continues to rise, conditions will get better and better.

you're both smoking crack
People have less babies because they're richer? Reproductive suicide?

People are having less babies because Bush is such a bad President they don't want to bring kids into a world thats being destroyed by him.

How is that for logical? Same logic you guys used. Its nonsense, yes. Just like the premise that as we get richer we have less babies, or we're committing reproductive suicide by NOT having babies as much. Yeah Don, thank goodness for global warming! Good thinking buddy, way to keep truth and ignorance out of the way of your ideology.

I doubt more wealth means less babies, there must be other variables that would contribute, if thats true. And don't offer some silly argument that we're ALL more wealthy today because everyone has a tv and we didn't 50 years ago.

And reproductive suicide sounds more likely in the sense that our population would outstrip our resources and therefore cause our demise. We're certainly not in danger of dying out because we're not having enough babies. Call me when world population is down to a billion, then I might be concerned.

Those darn atheist-socialists, they're ruining everything. If conservatives didn't have each other, they would have no one. Where else are they going to get anonymous gay sex?

People are having fewer children because they are selfish
As people become more affluent and long lived, they become more narcissistic.
Women used to start having children as soon as physically possible. Now they may wait years before having only one. And they may or may not do so with the help of the father.
Women who are 'not ready' might kill their babies. Those women are probably atheist-socialists. It is fairly certain they are not very religious. Soviet indoctrination has left their population in decline to the point the state is promoting sex for children. So those having many children are religious. Atheists will soon be following the path of the Shakers.

As for the planet being too small, if 6 billion people were put on Australia, they would each have over 1200 sq meters of space. Each person in Singapore has 150 sq meters of space. There is plenty of room and plenty of food and water.

get richer = less babies
Not just in the US, but all over the world, as people get have gotten richer, they always have less babies. This includes cultures that claim they still like to have lots of babies, like all arab places, also in India. As they get richer, it also means that women get smarter, realizing that it's not too good to have about 10 babies anymore, the way they used to. Try checking it out in some middle class suburb in say Mexico, or Calcutta and see if the richer women are still having so many babies. This is a well document fact of life and very widely know, so you must be some kinda clueless not to know it too.

are they truly richer or merely more modern?
Perhaps many people who we think are rich are in fact not as rich as we think. If people have to work very hard to maintain their lifestyle they are probably not truly rich. In my area most couples seem to be dual-income households. They appear rich, but looking objectively at their lifestyles belies the outward material wealth.

Children probably cost more to raise and produce less immediate benefit than in old times, if people are to successfully compete in the modern economy. The desire for many children may not be reduced. The types of jobs people have now and other economic factors may all combine to make it harder for an average couple raise children.

A stay-at-home mother may be considered in one sense bad for the mother, but in another sense a luxury, for a single modest laborer to support such a household on his own.

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