A good idea from... Adam Smith

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The Independent Culture
IT'S NO coincidence that most jobs are so boring. In my local McDonald's, a man (the recipient of three silver stars on his lapel) is exclusively employed to spread mayonnaise on bread buns. Another man devotes his days to putting the lids on hamburgers and sliding them into ovens, a third makes sure there are enough fries in the vats. There can't be much to talk about at the end of the working day. Blame Adam Smith.

Born in Kirkcaldy on the Fife coast in 1723, Smith became - almost overnight - the world's most famous economist with the publication in 1776 of The Wealth of Nations. Its central idea was that businesses get more efficient, and countries richer, the more workforces become specialised. The "division of labour" was the motor of economic growth. Smith used the case of pin manufacture. One man making pins on his own wouldn't be able to turn out more than one pin a day. But 10 men, sharing between them 18 simple operations, could make 50,000 pins a day: "One man draws out the wire, another straights it, a third cuts it, a fourth points it, a fifth grinds it at the top for receiving the head and so on."

It's hard to attack Smith's argument on economic grounds, rather easier on human grounds. It's obviously far more efficient for workers to spend their time doing one thing only, but it's also devastatingly dull. The division of labour can stunt the development of personality. Smith conceded the danger; a worker exclusively engaged in one basic operation "has no occasion to exert his understanding ... and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become".

But Smith argued more optimistically that the division of labour would have the great advantage of liberating people from doing what they're no good at. It "encourages every man to bring to perfection whatever talent or genius he may possess for a particular species of business". In primitive societies, you have to know how to do a whole lot of things: repair shoes, clear drains, make clothes, add up the accounts - most of which you'll probably do dismally. "In the very small villages of the Highlands of Scotland," observed Smith, "every farmer must be a butcher, baker and brewer for his own family." And he's likely to be lousy at baking, even if he's brilliant at sheepfarming.

Another advantage of dividing labour is that people will generally fight each other less, for we don't kill those on whom we depend. The more our needs are catered to by people all over the world, the less likely we are to want to rape and pillage their countries. And if others are economically dependent on us, we are in turn less reliant on their friendliness. There's no reason for lone farmers from the Highlands of Scotland to be nice to one another. But as soon as they take up specialised jobs, they start to need each other and so must abandon their gruffness. The "have-a-nice- day" friendliness of modern business follows directly from Smith's ideas.