Specialize – the great human achievement is to specialize as a producer of goods and services so that you can diversify as a consumer. Self-sufficiency is another word for poverty.
~ Matthew Ridley
Viscount Ridley made this statement in response to being asked what advice he might give an ambitious young student. Essentially, what Ridley promoted was the idea of economic division of labor as the best path for achieving personal prosperity. This was not a call for a return to strict trade and professional systems, such as the medieval guild structure, or the hereditary bone-ranks of medieval Korea, both of which effectively formed exclusionary socio-economic caste systems, which hampered development and progress for as long as they were in place.
Although there is nothing particularly “elitist” in the push for specialization, there is no doubt that historically it is seen as exclusive and therefore discriminatory. The following is an alternative solution concocted by the greatest, and most deluded visionary of all, Karl Marx:
[A]s soon as the distribution of labour comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. This fixation of social activity, this consolidation of what we ourselves produce into an objective power above us, growing out of our control, thwarting our expectations, bringing to naught our calculations, is one of the chief factors in historical development up till now.
As the story of Almanzo Wilder and his multiple failures at farming shows, Marx’s world does not end well. Hunting and fishing both require massive time commitments, even more if one desires to live above subsistence level, and, as anyone who has kept animals knows, livestock tends to require constant care and attendance. It is interesting that the of lack of focus which Matt Ridley, rightly, pointed out leads to poverty is a prerequisite for Marx’s ideal communist society.
The implication of the phrase “become accomplished in any branch he wishes” is that false premise that capitalist societies, which undeniably favor specialization, reserve freedom of occupational choice to a select, privileged few. Historically, such a situation might have been the case, for example during the Renaissance, although that is itself a contradiction of sorts. But in modernity, the opposite has occurred. Economist John Tamny offers a riposte to the “specialization = a closed system” view with his book The End of Work: Why Your Passion Can Become Your Job, in which he demonstrates that the correct sequence is specialization ➛ greater productivity ➛ less time required to meet cost of living ➛ more time for people to pursue formerly unproductive hobbies and interests. There is one caveat to Tamny’s analysis: It requires recognizing that the rhetoric and scaremongering regarding “rising cost of living / declining lifestyles” is patently false. There is also an element, which Tamny addressed directly, of the modern world “making profitable work which was formerly not.” The example he used was the arts and young artists who are able support themselves and build their careers through working side-hustles.
One aspect which is observable in Tamny’s research, though he did not directly comment upon it himself, is a simmering resentment between the generations, particularly Generation X and the Millennials. The former frequently did not acquire any type of genuine skill as students, preferring “to learn on the job,” and in the process lost the opportunity to benefit from the world Tamny describes. In a way, the experience observed matches Marx’s assumption of some people feeling locked out of specialization-produced prosperity, and it might help explain why this generation has become the leaders of either the Bernie Sanders-following left, or alternately a peculiar hybrid of socially-conscious pseudo-conservatism.
The other aspect of the specialization versus communitarian dilettantism is an underlying idea that the “Renaissance man has it all.” If one considers that Marx’s co-author and financial patron, Friedrich Engels, was a landowning, fox-hunting industrialist, for whom social upheaval was a side passion, the dripping class-resentment from the former is both more recognizable and ironic. Being a person who has all, in the style of a true Renaissance man, i.e. someone who engages with lifetime learning and skill acquisition, is a privilege, albeit one that is obtainable for most people. Contrary to Marx’s fundamental assumption, it is not one to which everyone aspires, especially since it requires making a deliberate choice to pursue new activities and interests.
Currently, the world belongs to those who are specialized; these are the modern-day Renaissance men. We see the hierarchy daily in the professions: tax lawyers earn more than unspecialized attorneys; neurosurgeons receive greater esteem (and money) than general practitioners; welders are more appreciated than untrained line workers; cattle ranchers are more recognized than general farmers.
There is an objective justice about the pecking order, professional and social, created by specialization. The rancher will be able to feed himself and others in a crises, while, as the story of Almanzo Wilder shows, the scattershot general farmer may in an instant be reduced to subsistence, unable to feed even his own family; in a pinch, the welder can do the same task as a line worker, while the line worker is incapable of using the welder’s equipment; a neurosurgeon can dispense the same medical advice as a GP, while the GP lacks the extent of the former’s knowledge; a tax attorney has the same foundation as the unspecialized lawyer but has insights and knowledge the other lacks. Fundamentally, the specialized are more valuable than the unspecialized.
The correlation between specialization and financial prosperity, which in the US tends to be accompanied with increased social status, has created a particular subset of social complaints. It is not uncommon, especially within the context of student debt debates, for testimonials to be produced from individuals who either did not specialize or who made their decisions pursuing mercenary goals. The overarching theme of such memoria is that these young people, and low-income older people, have been wronged by society in some vague way. A fairly recent example, one which I have written about before, is that of graduates from Valparaiso School of Law discovering that their qualifications held no value in the broader professional community. One of the tragedies that emerged from the Valparaiso story was that many of the swindled students had attempted to specialize in specific subdivisions of law only to discover that there was no market because, very often, their “specialties” were not genuine legal subfields – there were quite a few “advocacy” law specialists, but there is no “advocacy law” in the same sense as there is tax law, property law, constitutional law, corporate law, etc.
The conservative response to such stories is that these people are the victims of a post-industrial world, one which makes individuals who would be better off as unskilled labor in factories feel as though they have to pursue middle-class behaviors and careers in order to be socially acceptable. The “woke” version is very similar but assumes, dovetailing to Marx’s own thoughts, that specialization is a capitalist scam concocted to prey upon people who “just want a better life for themselves.” It is worth noting that both points of view assume that there has been a decline in quality of life, despite abundant evidence to the contrary; the view is predicated on the one-way street nature of the “wage stagnation” argument and does not take into account the fact that cost of living has gone down, placing material middle-class riches within reach of everyone.
Sooner or later, regardless of the political inclinations of the proponent, the discussion turns toward the material and consumer concerns. There is in the US a stereotype of the high-powered Manhattan corporate lawyer/banker/doctor with his BMW, children in private school, penthouse and country house, professional and domestic staff, socialite wife, etc. but who also works eighty hours a week and is largely absent from the family. Although this image is one for the movies, there is a broader cry in response along the lines of “we don’t want his life, just the consumptive power and equivalent social respect.” As Matt Ridley pointed out, the incentive to specialize is to diversify; those who do not specialize cannot diversify. There is no point in protecting people from themselves or attempting to explain harsh realities to them. It is time to acknowledge, clearly and without prevarication, that those who desire the perks of the specialized, consumer diversification, but reject the giving of time and the dedication required of specialization aspire to beyond their willingness to work constructively.