Front Page Titles (by Subject) 2: The Division of Labour as the Principle of Social Development - Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
2: The Division of Labour as the Principle of Social Development - Ludwig von Mises, Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis 
Socialism: An Economic and Sociological Analysis, trans. J. Kahane, Foreword by F.A. Hayek (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
The Division of Labour as the Principle of Social Development
We are still far from understanding the ultimate and most profound secret of life, the principle of the origin of organisms. Who knows whether we shall ever discover it? All we know today is that when organisms are formed, something which did not exist before is created out of individuals. Vegetable and animal organisms are more than conglomerations of single cells, and society is more than the sum of the individuals of which it is composed. We have not yet grasped the whole significance of this fact. Our thoughts are still limited by the mechanical theory of the conservation of energy and of matter, which is never able to tell us how one can become two. Here again, if we are to extend our knowledge of the nature of life, understanding of the social organization will have to precede that of the biological.
Historically division of labour originates in two facts of nature: the inequality of human abilities and the variety of the external conditions of human life on the earth. These two facts are really one: the diversity of Nature, which does not repeat itself but creates the universe in infinite, inexhaustible variety. The special nature of our inquiry, however, which is directed towards sociological knowledge, justifies us in treating these two aspects separately.
It is obvious that as soon as human action becomes conscious and logical it must be influenced by these two conditions. They are indeed such as almost to force the division of labour on mankind.16 Old and young, men and women co-operate by making appropriate use of their various abilities. Here also is the germ of the geographical division of labour; man goes to the hunt and woman to the spring to fetch water. Had the strength and abilities of all individuals and the external conditions of production been everywhere equal the idea of division of labour could never have arisen. Man would never of himself have hit upon the idea of making the struggle for existence easier by co-operation in the division of labour. No social life could have arisen among men of equal natural capacity in a world which was geographically uniform.17 Perhaps men would have joined together to cope with tasks which were beyond the strength of individuals, but such alliances do not make a society. The relations they create are transient, and endure only for the occasion that brings them about. Their only importance in the origin of social life is that they create a rapprochement between men which brings with it mutual recognition of the difference in the natural capacities of individuals and thus in turn gives rise to the division of labour.
Once labour has been divided, the division itself exercises a differentiating influence. The fact that labour is divided makes possible further cultivation of individual talent and thus co-operation becomes more and more productive. Through co-operation men are able to achieve what would have been beyond them as individuals, and even the work which individuals are capable of doing alone is made more productive. But all this can only be grasped fully when the conditions which govern increase of productivity under co-operation are set out with analytical precision.
The theory of the international division of labour is one of the most important contributions of Classical Political Economy. It shows that as long as—for any reasons—movements of capital and labour between countries are prevented, it is the comparative, not the absolute, costs of production which govern the geographical division of labour.18 When the same principle is applied to the personal division of labour it is found that the individual enjoys an advantage in co-operating not only with people superior to himself in this or that capacity but also with those who are inferior to himself in every relevant way. If, through his superiority to B, A needs three hours’ labour for the production of one unit of commodity p compared with B’s five, and for the production of commodity q two hours against B’s four, then A will gain if he confines his labour to producing q and leaves B to produce p. If each gives sixty hours to producing both p and q, the result of A’s labour is 20p + 30q, of B’s 12p + 15q, and for both together 32p + 45q. If however, A confines himself to producing q alone he produces sixty units in 120 hours, whilst B, if he confines himself to producing p, produces in the same time twenty-four units. The result of the activity is then 24p + 60q, which, as p has for A a substitution value of 3 : 2q and for B one of 5 : 4q, signifies a larger production than 32p + 45q. Therefore it is obvious that every expansion of the personal division of labour brings advantages to all who take part in it. He who collaborates with the less talented, less able, and less industrious individuals gains an advantage equally as the man who associated with the more talented, more able, and more industrious. The advantage of the division of labour is mutual; it is not limited to the case where work is done which the solitary individual could never have carried out.
The greater productivity of work under the division of labour is a unifying influence. It leads men to regard each other as comrades in a joint struggle for welfare, rather than as competitors in a struggle for existence. It makes friends out of enemies, peace out of war, society out of individuals.19
[16. ]Durkheim, De la division du travail social (Paris, 1893), pp. 294 ff. endeavours (following Comte and against Spencer) to prove that the division of labour prevails not because, as the economists think, it increases output but as a result of the struggle for existence. The denser the social mass the sharper the struggle for existence. This forces individuals to specialize in their work, as otherwise they would not be able to maintain themselves. But Durkheim overlooks the fact that the division of labour makes this possible only because it makes labour more productive. Durkheim comes to reject the theory of the importance of the greater productivity in the division of labour through a false conception of the fundamental idea of utilitarianism and of the law of the satiation of wants (op. cit., 218 ff., 257 ff.). His view that civilization is called forth by changes in the volume and density of society is untenable. Population grows because labour becomes more productive and is able to nourish more people, not vice versa.
[17. ]On the important part played by the local variety of productive conditions in the origin of the division of labour see von den Steinen, Unter den Naturvölkern Zentralbrasiliens, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1897), pp. 196 ff.
[18. ]Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, pp. 76 ff.; Mill, Principles of Political Economy, pp. 348 if.; Bastable, The Theory of International Trade, 3rd ed. (London, 1900), pp. 16 ff.
[19. ]“Trade makes the human race, which originally has only the unity of the species, into a really unitary society.” See Steinthal, Allgemeine Ethik (Berlin, 1885), p. 208. Trade, however, is nothing more than a technical aid of the division of labour. On the division of labour in the sociology of Thomas Aquinas see Schreiber, Die volkswirtschaftlichen Anschauungen der Scholastik seit Thomas von Aquin (Jena, 1913), pp. 19 ff.