Sorry I haven’t posted anything new these past few weeks, but I’ve been laid low by a viral infection that I’m finding rather difficult to shake. So I thought I’d start a discussion with a few jottings, on a topic I meant to research and write on more fully, and may do so later on.
It’s one of the key tenets of capitalism that the most efficient production of goods and services comes from individuals specializing in different tasks (from each according to his ability, anyone?) and pooling their efforts. I touched on this theme in my earlier article on corporations, noting that the incredibly complex products made by companies today were beyond the capacity of any one individual to fashion. No one person knows how to build a Boeing Dreamliner aircraft, or an Apple iPad. Yet they get built.
From the viewpoint of the economist, this is unremarkable, even trivially so, and from that viewpoint it makes perfect sense. We all have our own unique aptitudes, interests and talents, not to mention our own wants and desires, and it makes perfect sense to funnel our endeavours into that which we are best at, which we enjoy doing and which reaps us the optimal economic rewards. But have we not, somewhere along the way, sacrificed a great deal of our autonomy in pursuit of that goal?
It wasn’t always this way. Sure, even prior to the Industrial Revolution, people still went in for trades and professions, and devoted years of their young lives in training for them. But it is also true that back then, a young man who went to university would graduate having been imparted with pretty much the entire corpus of human knowledge. The sheer ferocity of speed with which the field of science and technology has advanced in the last two centuries has meant that it takes many years to gain a professional working knowledge of even a small corner of it.
Today, we wake up in houses we don’t know how to build, eat breakfast consisting of food we don’t know how to produce, jump into a car we can’t fix, and drive off to work for a company we don’t understand beyond our own cubicle niche. All our efforts are fixated upon simply staying up to date with that tiny corner of the world. We have been seduced into the folly of credentialism, thinking that only one with official qualifications in a particular subject has any right, or indeed ability, to offer an opinion on it. We tend to treat every field other than our own as a sort of black art, and accept unquestioningly any pronouncements by the experts. After all, what would we know?
Yes, this has led to a society that produces a mind-bogglingly vast array of products, cheaper, more efficiently and more abundantly than ever before in human history. By any realistic measure, we’re all rich. The economists are satisfied and smug. But have we lost something along the way? Has the collectivism we have implicitly accepted as the price of all this cornucopian abundance, in fact reduced our society to a house of cards? And us into ant-men?
I’m hardly the first person to wonder about this. I came across this essay the other week, quoting Plato, Thomas Paine and Adam Smith, which makes much the same point. I know that, in my own life, I’m keen to regain as much autonomy as I can. Without becoming an Amish, it’s impossible to do completely—if the laptop computer I’m typing this on breaks down, I have to either pay a technician to repair it, or buy another—but I do take steps to produce as much of my own food and fuel, as well as waste disposal, as possible. Is it an overly idealistic ambition? Or something we should all strive for? I’ll let you drive this one.