What did Adam Smith really invent in 1776 — the “sweatshop” or the “brain trust?”
With typical human laziness, we tend only to read the first pages of the Smith’s “Wealth of Nations”, failing to understand his real thinking. Had we read to Book V, we would have found a blueprint for work life and business education which would have given us a profoundly different way of approaching how we work.
Many of our own efforts in the 50+20 project could well be inspired by Smith’s real intent — valuing, trusting and growing both people and profits, both at the same time,
Many of us will already be familiar with Adam Smith’s considerable contribution to economics. However, let us briefly touch upon one of his better-known passages, where he describes the efficiency gains derived from the division of labour:
“But though they were very poor, and therefore but indifferently accommodated with the necessary machinery, they could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day. There are in a pound upwards of four thousand pins of a middling size. Those ten persons, therefore, could make among them upwards of forty-eight thousand pins in a day. Each person, therefore, making a tenth part of forty-eight thousand pins, might be considered as making four thousand eight hundred pins in a day.
“But if they had all wrought separately and independently, and without any of them having been educated to this peculiar business, they certainly could not each of them have made twenty, perhaps not one pin in a day; that is, certainly, not the two hundred and fortieth, perhaps not the four thousand eight hundredth part of what they are at present capable of performing, in consequence of a proper division and combination of their different operations”.
All very technical and reasonable — the observations of a rational man in a rational society. Surely the sums add up? Surely the division of labour is clearly of benefit to us all as a means of production?
Not necessarily. In his fifth chapter of the Wealth of Nations entitled Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth, Smith presents us with an entirely different viewpoint. If you read nothing else in this post, read the following few paragraphs, which are enlightening, worrying and witty in equal measures:
“In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments.
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur.
“He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.
“Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise, he is equally incapable of defending his country in war. The uniformity of his stationary life naturally corrupts the courage of his mind, and makes him regard with abhorrence the irregular, uncertain, and adventurous life of a soldier.
“It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilized society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it”
Source: WN: B.V, Ch.1, Of the Expences of the Sovereign or Commonwealth in paragraph V.1.178
Now, what if we literally put what Smith says above into positives? For example, let us pretend Adam Smith saunters into a productive, lively workplace where all participants provide sustained and creative inputs — a place where people work because they love what they do. He might have said something like the following (based on the second and third paragraphs):
“The man whose whole life is spent in performing creative and complex operations, of which the effects are varied, has much occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which will occur.
He naturally gains, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as intelligent and enlightened as it is possible for a human creature to become. The keeness of his mind renders him capable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, and of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life.”
We need not immediately dismiss our experiment as idle wordplay. If we were to create such a place of work, participants will be more likely to:
- Understand the whole
- Be inventive
- Develop the ability to hold a rational conversation (a rarity indeed!)
- Be able to form measured judgements (as above)
- Show courage and welcome the unexpected
- Grow intellectually, as well as develop their social and moral values
Interestingly, the traits listed above provide a useful summary of the qualities and competencies required for leadership: individuals who display creative versatility and appreciate the larger picture.
Unfortunately leadership qualities are unlikely to blossom in the average sweatshop. The fragmentation of our working lives can easily make us short sighted, unable or unwilling to consider the larger world around us. Our brains atrophy with repetition. Our very souls ossify in the face of the mundane. The problem is further compounded by the notion of the Work/Life Balance — which by itself implies a separation of what we do for money and what we do because we want to. We can’t expect to develop fully rounded leaders when so many of us are forced to live outside our jobs.
In short, it seems Adam Smith has already endorsed our efforts to rethink, reframe and re-motivate a wiser approach to Business Education. Are we ready to pick up his challenge?