The Wiki Man

The other side to the division of labour: the concentration of attention

How Adam Smith’s theory fosters specialist talent

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

5 December 2015

9:00 AM

Adam Smith’s theory on the division of labour first appeared in 1776 in The Wealth of Nations. The idea was later revived by The Coasters in their early 1960s B-side ‘My Baby Comes to Me’.

Well, she go to see the baker when she wants some cake
She go to see the butcher when she wants a steak
She go to see the doctor when she’s got a cold
She go to see the gypsy when she wants her fortune told
But when she wants good loving my baby comes to me
When she wants good loving my baby comes to me.

As Mr McClinton explains, rather than dividing his efforts between the supply of cake and fortune-telling, the baker is better off concentrating on the former. Similarly, the doctor will be better off not diversifying into the provision of ‘good loving’, leaving that market niche to the narrator, who seems to enjoy a healthy competitive advantage.

What is interesting about the division of labour is not just that it works, but that it works in many different ways. At the most basic, it arises from the simple insight that ten people each concentrating on one task will do a better job than ten people dividing their time between ten different tasks. But it also works elsewhere. For instance a butcher will be able to stock a greater range of meats if his shop is not cluttered up with cakes.

It also works at the level of trust and reputation. A fishmonger suffers more damage from selling poor fish than a general retailer. We therefore trust them not to do it badly. Would you buy oysters from a cake shop?


Consumers seem to understand the benefits of specialisation instinctively. When I see a restaurant which advertises ‘Thai food and tapas’ I do not think ‘What an excitingly diverse eating experience’ but ‘Hmmm, probably a rubbish restaurant’.

So the interesting thing about the division of labour is that it isn’t really all about labour. It’s also about the division of attention, the division of reputation, the division of expectation and the division of trust.

(The only exception to this law seems to be ‘Timpson’s Paradox’, the peculiar economic discovery that, for no readily discernible reason, key-cutting and shoe repair must always be performed at the same location.)

But perhaps the most important effect of the division of labour is the division of attention, and the effect this has on innovation. If you spend 5 per cent of your time screwing legs on chairs, it’s not worth inventing an electric screwdriver. If you spend 100 per cent of your time screwing legs on chairs, you dream about nothing else.

Oddly, Adam Smith noticed this effect, and included it in an early draft of The Wealth of Nations. But then he deleted it.

It was the division of labour which probably gave occasion to the invention of the greater part of those machines, by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged. When the whole force of the mind is directed to one particular object, as in consequence of the division of labour it must be, the mind is more likely to discover the easiest methods of attaining that object than when its attention is dissipated among a great variety of things.

The reason this is important is that it is now widely believed that innovation itself takes place in specialist clusters: in Silicon Valley, or in university departments. Much of it does. But much innovation still comes from people in a trade. As Smith goes on to say, ‘He was probably a farmer who first invented the original, rude form of the plough.’

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  • knocke

    As usual, charming. Where can I find the deleted Adam Smith text?

    • rorysutherland

      The advantage, too, which is gained by saving the time commonly lost in passing from one species of work to another is very considerable, and much greater than what we should at first be apt to imagine. It is impossible to pass very quickly from some businesses to others, which are carried on in distant places and with quite different tools. A country weaver who likewise cultivates a small farm must lose a good deal of time in passing from his loom to the field and from the field to his loom. Where the two businesses can be carried on in the same work house, the loss of time is no doubt much less. It is even here, however, very considerable. A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hand from one sort of employment to a quite different (one). When he first begins the new work he is seldome very keen or hearty. His mind does not go with it, and he for some time rather triffles than applies to good purpose. A man of great spirit and activity, when he is hard pushed upon some particular occasion, will pass with the greatest rapidity from one sort of work to another through a great variety of businesses. Even a man of spirit and activity, however, must be hard pushed before | he can do this. In the ordinary course of business, when he passes from one thing to another he will saunter and trifle, tho’ not undoubtedly in the same degree, yet in the same manner as an idle fellow. This habit of sauntering and of indolent, careless application, which is naturally or rather necessarily contracted by every country workman, who is obliged to change his work and his tools every half hour, and to apply his hand in twenty different manners almost every day in his life, renders him almost always very slothful and lazy, and incapable, even upon the most pressing occasions, of any vigourous application. Independent therefore of his want of the most perfect dexterity this cause alone must always make the quantity of the work which he performs extremely inconsiderable.

      Every body must be sensible how much labour is abridged and facilitated by the application of proper machinery. By means of the plough two men, with the assistance of three horses, will cultivate more ground than twenty could do with the spade. A miller and his servant, with a wind or water mill, will at their ease grind more corn than eight men could do, with the severest labour, by hand mills. To grind corn in a hand mill was the severest work to which the antients commonly applied their slaves, and to which they seldome condemned them unless when they had been guilty of some very great fault. A hand mill, however, is a very ingenuous machine which greatly facilitates labour, and by which a great deal of more work can be performed than when the corn is either to be beat in a mortar, or with the bare hand, unassisted by any machinery, to be rubbed into pouder between two hard stones, as is the practice not only of all barbarous nations but of some remote provinces in this country. It was the division of labour which probably gave occasion to the invention of the greater part of those machines, by which labour is so much facilitated and abridged. When the whole force of the mind is directed to one particular object, as in consequence of the division of labour it must be, the mind is more likely to discover the easiest methods of attaining that object than when its attention is dissipated among a great variety of things. He was probably a farmer who first invented the original, rude form of the plough. The improvements which were afterwards made upon it might be owing sometimes to the ingenuity of the plow wright when that business had become a particular occupation, and sometimes to that of the farmer. Scarce any of them are so complex as to exceed what might be expected from the capacity of the latter. The drill plow, the most ingenious of any, was the invention of a farmer. Scarce any of them are so complex as to exceed what might be expected from the capacity of the latter. The drill plow, the most ingenious of any, was the invention of a farmer. Some miserable slave, condemned to grind corn between two stones by the meer strength of his arms, pretty much in the same manner as painters bray their colours at present, was probably the first who thought of supporting the upper stone by a spindle and of turning it round by a crank or handle which moved | horizontally, according to what seems to have been the original, rude form of hand mills. He who first thought of making the spindle pass quite through the under millstone, which is at rest, of uniting it with a trundle, and of turning round that trundle by means of a cog wheel, which was itself turned round by a winch or handle, according to the present form of hand mills, was probably a mill wright, or a person whose principal or sole business it was, in consequence of the still further division of labour, to prepare that original, rude machine which it does not exceed the capacity of a common slave to have invented. Great advantages were gained by this improvement. The whole machinery being thus placed below the under millstone, the top of the upper one was left free for the conveniencies of the hopper, the feeder and shoe, and the crank or handle, which turned the cog wheel, moving in a circle perpendicular to the horizon, the strength of the human body could be applied to it with much more advantage than to any crank which was to be turned round in a circle parallel to the horizon. These different improvements were probably not all of them the inventions of one man, but the successive discoveries of time and experience, and of the ingenuity of many different artists…

      HT to those notorious pinkos at the Online Library of Liberty.

  • knocke

    Many thanks: What an observant priest he was.

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