Front Page Titles (by Subject) LECTURE V. - Lectures on Political Economy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
LECTURE V. - Mountifort Longfield, Lectures on Political Economy 
Lectures on Political Economy, delivered in Trinity and Michaelmas Terms, 1833 (Dublin: Richard Milliken and Son, 1834).
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 text is in the public domain.
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.
Among the different expedients to which man has resorted for increasing the productive powers of labour, there is none so striking for its simplicity as the division of labour. Without some division of labour, every man, woman, and child should, by their own immediate exertions, produce every thing they wanted, without the intervention of any exchange, or the advantage of any assistance. But such a state of things could continue only in a perfectly savage state; it never existed, and never can exist in any society. The nature of man leads him directly to have recourse to exchanges and mutual assistance. The different powers, dispositions, and capabilities of the different sexes, (a difference so far exceeding any that exists in the case of other animals,) and the difference in the same respects that exists between youth and age, and even between individuals of the same age and sex, point out the convenience and necessity of different persons undertaking separate employments, and by sharing and exchanging mutual assistance, of promoting the common benefit of all. When once security of life and property is established in any country, the slightest portion of reason is sufficient to point out the advantage of some division of labour, by every person’s undertaking the employment for which, by age, disposition, or natural talents, he happens to be best adapted. The limited powers of many persons would lead to the same result, as a matter of necessity. They who could not do every thing necessary towards procuring their subsistence, could yet do something that would save the labour of their stronger brethren, and allow these latter to devote their entire time to purposes to which they alone were competent. Such arrangements would be very much facilitated and even prompted by the institution of marriage, the relation of members of the same family, and the length of time during which the young are either entirely or partly dependent upon others.
A division of labour commenced from necessity, would be continued from convenience. The notion of exchange is natural to man, and results immediately from the institution of property. It is at once seen that with some kinds of labour a multiutde can be adequately supplied, almost as easily as a single person. For instance, the fire lit to warm one will supply heat enough for several; but although all would derive equal advantage from the fire, they will not therefore occupy themselves exactly in the same manner in its production. If one basket-full of fuel is enough for the fire which warms ten men, it would still be absurd for each man to go and fetch the tenth of a basket-full, and take a tenth part of the trouble of arranging the fire. They would at once see the advantage of one fetching the fuel, one arranging the fire, and the rest in like manner employing themselves in some manner for the common benefit. In selecting different employments, each would naturally be directed to the one most suited to his disposition and abilities, and if any person was fit for only one employment, that would naturally be thrown upon him, as being the only means of making his labour available.
These advantages of enabling the wants of several to be supplied with the same expense of time and labour as the wants of a single individual, and of giving every person the employment for which he was qualified, having led to the division of labour, some further advantages would be observed, which before its establishment could not so readily have been anticipated.
The first of these, perhaps, in the order of its being remarked, would be the increased skill which a man acquires who confines himself to a particular employment. The man whose strength or constitution will not allow him to hunt the deer, may procure venison by staying at home and making arrows for the stronger brethren of his tribe, who will readily give him a portion of their spoils in return for the advantage which they derive from being enabled to devote that time to hunting which they should otherwise have employed in the fabrication of their weapons. He will soon acquire a skill in this employment which will render it expedient for him to pursue it, exclusively of other occupations, for which, perhaps, he was originally equally qualified by nature. He will perceive that through the medium of exchanges, in consequence of his acquired skill, he can obtain more by devoting himself to this one occupation, now become his trade, than if he were in turn to engage in every employment in which he was capable of engaging.
The man thus engaged in a trade, as for instance, making arrows, will soon find that in any certain space of time he can make a greater number, and with greater skill, not by first making one and then another, which is the course that nature would suggest until the trade was established, but by commencing with a great many together. Wood enough to make a dozen could be cut into the proper length almost as readily as the materials for a single one. However simple his tools are, he will find some time lost, some delay incurred, in turning from one part of the work to another, and this delay is escaped by completing one operation upon several, before he turns to a new branch of his work. By this means, at the end of a certain space of time, he will have a larger quantity finished; but until that time is over, he will not have any of them fit for use or exchange. He must therefore have had the means of living during the progress of the work, either by his own resources or by goods advanced to him by some other person, who hopes, when the work is completed, to be repaid those advances with a profit. The last is the most usual. The labourer in general, when a division of labour has advanced so far, cannot support himself until the time when the proper number of goods that ought to be made together are completed, and if he attempts to forego the advantage of this division of labour, and to make one at a time, he will be undersold by those who avail themselves of it. As a journeyman, the part of the produce of his labour which he receives as wages will be more than the entire value of what he could make upon his own account.
When the idea is once conceived and practised, of a man’s working first at one part of a number of goods and then at another, for an employer who pays him wages and keeps what he has wrought, the progress of the work to maturity is in imagination divided into a certain number of stages, and it becomes obvious that there is no necessity that the same man who has proceeded with the work to one stage should afterwards take it up and carry it on to another stage. Two operations, one succeeding the other, may be of very different kinds, and require very different powers, and may therefore be advantageously executed by different individuals. This could not conveniently be done where each workman was working with the intention of repaying himself for his labour by the sale of the manufactured article. But when he comes to work for wages, his employer will naturally make such an arrangement, both for the reason I have mentioned, of assigning to each the work which he does quickest and best, and of preventing the delay and loss of time incurred by his labourers changing from one employment to another. Some division of labour is so natural and even necessary in a society, that it generally escapes observation until it has reached this point, that is, the point when the several operations necessary to the completion of an article are performed by different persons; and the phrase, division of labour, is frequently, by inaccurate thinkers, applied to this latter species alone.
From the division of labour, when carried to this extent, besides the increased operation of the principles already mentioned, another advantage is frequently derived. The manufacture being now divided into a series of simple operations, each one executed by a separate workman, numerous contrivances and modes of machinery will be invented for shortening labour in some of those operations. The person who has but one or two simple objects and operations constantly before his eyes, will become perfectly acquainted with them, his thoughts and reasonings will be more constantly directed towards them, the clear distinct ideas which he will possess will enable him to understand and anticipate the effects of any alteration in the mode of executing them, and in many cases observation and experience, or even chance, has led to important discoveries, which would never have been made if the mind of the person making them had been distracted by the necessity of attending to a great variety of different objects. The discoveries thus made are in many respects analogous to the increase of skill which a workman acquires in the single vocation to which he confines himself. But the expression, increase of skill, is applied to that facility which is acquired and can be acquired by practice alone, and cannot be communicated by mere instruction. Thus the weaver who plies constantly at his loom, acquires thereby a certain skill in his trade, but if he observed that by wetting the thread, or by drying it, the shuttle flew more easily, the discovery would be an instance of that advantageous consequence of a division of labour to which I am at present calling your attention. The prospect of this last advantage however never leads, even in the most civilized societies, to any division of labour, which, but for it, would not have existed. It is too contingent to be the object of speculation, and besides, when any such discovery is made, there is frequently an impossibility of securing its advantages to the person making it.
Thus, of those five advantages of a division of labour, the two first are the securing to each individual the employment to which his powers are best adapted, and the possibility of providing for the wants of several, with the same quantity of labour that would be required to provide for those of a single person. Those two circumstances lead, of necessity, to a division of labour in every society, and the advantages resulting from them can be anticipated before any division of labour has been instituted. The next two advantages are the increased skill acquired by the labourer who confines himself to a single department, and the time saved by escaping the necessity of frequently changing from one occupation to another. These, although they perhaps might not have been anticipated before some division of labour was established, yet would soon be remarked when a division of labour to any extent was introduced, and would in many cases cause it to be carried to a greater extent than it was before. Reflection will shew that these advantages will result in all instances where men confine themselves to one employment, and therefore the expectation of meeting them will in many instances give rise to a division of labour which otherwise would not have existed.
The wages of labour are, like all other things, regulated by the proportion between the supply and demand, and in consequence, some kinds of labour are more valuable than others. Most persons are naturally capable of performing various kinds of labour of different values. But it would obviously be a waste of a man’s powers were he to employ in a less valuable species of labour any portion of his time, which with no greater sacrifice of ease and comfort to himself, he could occupy in a more valuable, and therefore in a better paid employment. What a waste of his powers it would be, were a robust and healthy ploughman to spend half his time in knitting or spinning, or plaiting straw, not that with proper practice he might not do these as well as an old woman, or a child, but because he is equally able to hold the plough, a work which much fewer are able to do, and which therefore receives a better remuneration. All parties feel the benefit of this. The workman receives higher wages for his day’s work, by devoting the entire of it to the most valuable occupation for which he is fitted. The public is served by getting this work done on cheaper terms, in consequence of all who are capable of it being willing to undertake it, and even those who from being able to do nothing else, are obliged to occupy themselves with some inferior and worse paid employment, are served by receiving higher wages in consequence of the removal of the competition of all those who are fit for any higher employment. In a refined state of society, where the division of labour is carried on to a great extent, every individual who is capable of any kind of work may find some employment suited to his capacity.
Of that advantage of a division of labour which results from its being frequently as easy to do some things on a grand as on a small scale, and to provide for the wants of a multitude as to give the same benefit to one or two, the most striking instance is the institution of a public post-office, and every system conducted on a large scale for the conveyance of letters or parcels. It is as easy to convey one hundred letters from one town to another as it is to send a single letter, and by sending them all by one messenger, the expense of ninety-nine messengers is saved. This instance is the most striking, because each additional letter appears to occasion no additional expense; but the instances are very numerous where the business of a number can be provided for almost as readily as that of a single person. It is almost as easy to convoy a fleet as a single ship. Roads, harbours, canals, light-houses, offer further examples of the benefit of many being as it were partners in works of a certain description: each derives almost as much advantage from them as if they were exclusively his own, while the expense of making them is shared with a number. According as the density of the population increases, a greater number of such works can be carried on, and finished to a higher degree of perfection. The number of persons to enjoy the advantage of them is increased, while the share which falls to each of the expense of making them is diminished by the entire being shared with a greater number. All the duties of protection and government, &c. which belong to the state, and are provided for at the public expense, are of this nature. In every manufacture, the operation of this principle may be detected. The calculations and measurings that are necessary for one will suffice for a thousand articles. Observe a smith or a carpenter employed at some casual job, how he eyes it, and reflects, and measures, and calculates, and turns over the materials again and again, and if he has an assistant, how much time will be spent in considering what is the shortest, surest, and best mode of doing the work. If that were his regular trade, the same quantity of thought would do for a number of such jobs, or even less would be requisite, as he probably would learn the best mode of doing it from somebody else.
Adam Smith explains and illustrates with his usual felicity the causes and effects of the increased skill which a workman acquires by confining himself to a single employment. It is evident enough that the division of labour, by reducing a man’s business to a single operation, and by making that operation the sole business of his life, must increase very much the dexterity of the workman. But how great that increase of dexterity is, could scarcely be anticipated. Smith states, that a common smith who, though accustomed to handle the hammer, has never been used to make nails, if, upon some particular occasion, he is obliged to attempt it, will scarcely be able to make above 200 or 300 nails in a day, and those too very bad ones. A smith who is accustomed to make nails, but whose sole or principal business has not been that of a nailer, can seldom, with his utmost diligence, make more than 800 or a 1000 nails in a day. But he states that he had seen several boys under twenty years of age, who had never exercised any other trade but that of making nails, and who, when they exerted themselves, could make each of them upwards of 2,300 nails in a day. The making of nails however is not one of the simplest operations, and the increased dexterity acquired from the same cause in other simpler operations is usually much greater. But it would not, perhaps, be easy to find so plain an example of the effects of this increased skill. In other trades this, combined with other causes, produces an increase in the work performed; while in the example of the nailer, this effect is plainly to be attributed to the increased dexterity acquired by practice, for a common smith, when he undertakes this work, does it in the same manner, with the same tools, only not nearly as well. In this trade the comparison can be made, but in other trades, where the difference would be most striking, the very immensity of that difference prevents us from having any opportunity of making the comparison. No man, not bred to the trade, ever thinks upon any occasion of making a pin or a needle. If he were to attempt to make a pin, he would spend the day in making a single one, which, when made, would probably be as like a nail as a pin. But the consequence of the increased facility with which they are made, owing to a judicious division of labour, is, that the entire quantity of labour consumed in making a pin, including the working the mine for the materials, and the making of the tools, &c. is not more than half-a-minute of one man’s labour. The low price at which they are sold shews that it cannot occupy even so much. The trade of pin-making affords a striking proof of the operation of some of those principles which I have mentioned, as making the division of labour so effective. For instance, a man in one hour sharpens the points of 15,000 pins. In an equal space of time a man can make heads for 12,000, and another can fasten on in an hour the heads of 1,000. This last being at the rate of only about 16 a minute, is, I believe, the most tedious operation in the entire manufacture of pins. But what an immense increase of dispatch and dexterity must be acquired by continual practice to enable a man to sharpen 15,000 in an hour, that is about 4 in a second. And when an operation consumes so small a space of time, the effect of even a very little delay or loitering, in turning from one work to another, would cause a very serious diminution in the entire amount of business done. One man working ten, and another twelve hours, will have made heads and points for 144,000 pins. But suppose that even with undiminished skill (not a very probable supposition) one man should make the head and point of a pin turn about, allowing only a second to be lost each time he changed his work, that, in the 144,000 pins, will amount to a waste of eighty hours, that is, to a waste of nearly four times the number of hours effectively employed. In many other trades this effect of the division of labour is equally surprising, and it may not be too much to say that many persons, by the medium of exchanges, procure for the labour of one week more goods of various kinds than they could produce in the course of their lives, if they were to devote them all to the direct fabrication of them.
The advantage which is gained by saving the time commonly lost in passing from one employment to another, is remarked by Smith to be much greater than we should at first view be apt to imagine it. The time that is lost is of course more considerable when the works must be carried on at different places, and with quite different tools. But even when the two trades can be carried on in the same work-house, the loss of time, though no doubt much less, is still very considerable. A man commonly saunters a little in turning his hands from one employment to another. When he first begins the new work, he is seldom very keen and hearty, his mind, as they say, does not go to it, and for some time he rather trifles than applies to good purpose. The habit of sauntering, and of indolent, careless application, which is naturally or rather necessarily acquired 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 ways every day of his life, renders him almost always slothful and lazy, and incapable of any vigorous application even on the most pressing occasions. Independent therefore of his deficiency in point of dexterity, this cause alone must always reduce considerably the quantity of work which he is capable of performing.
The effect of the division of labour, when carried to any considerable extent, is necessarily to produce the article to which it is applied in large quantities. A great number of persons are constantly engaged in its manufacture, since each part has one or more individuals constantly employed at it; and the entire quantity of work performed increases in a much greater proportion than the number of the workmen, in consequence of the increased dexterity which continued practice confers upon each. But however numerous the articles thus fabricated may be, a number of men will not devote themselves to one employment, unless they can derive some advantage from that portion of the produce of their industry which they are not desirous of consuming themselves. This can only be done by exchanging the surplus produce for other articles. The extent therefore to which the division of labour can be advantageously carried, depends upon the extent of the market, within which circumstances of various kinds compel them to dispose of the produce of their industry. It would be a useless waste of labour to produce more goods than the persons who frequent that market are willing to purchase at a price sufficient to remunerate the labourer for his toil. But when the market is very small, an extensive division of labour would overstock it with the particular commodity produced by such means; and no person can have any encouragement to dedicate himself entirely to one employment, for want of the power to exchange all that surplus part of the produce of his labour which is over and above his own consumption, for such parts of the produce of other men’s labour as he has occasion for. Hence in thinly inhabited countries many trades that would be more productive if they formed the constant occupation of different individuals, must from necessity be carried on by the same person. Notwithstanding the increase in the dexterity of the nailer, which I have already mentioned, and the increased productive powers of his labour, acquired by confining himself to that occupation, it is impossible that such a trade could exist in a thinly peopled country, remote from any market where the surplus produce of his labour could be disposed of. On a very low computation, he could make 300,000 in a year, but in the wilds of America where could he find purchasers for them? He will find it more to his advantage and to that of the public, instead of making what he cannot sell, and what they do not want, to employ himself in a variety of trades, which in more thickly peopled districts would be kept distinct, and to engage in every sort of work that is made of iron. In like manner, as one can point 45,000,000 pins in a year, there must be a market extensive enough to consume that number, or the most productive division of labour cannot be introduced into the manufacture of pins. Also in many complicated manufactures, such as this latter is, it is seldom possible to have but one man engaged in any single occupation, and therefore the market must be still more extensive. The proportions of labour required in each department may not be such as without waste to admit of only one man being employed in any one of them. Thus if there was only one employed in making points, one man would not be enough, and two would be too many to make heads. The proportion, to keep all in constant employment, should be four at points, and five at heads; and that would require a market in which 180,000,000 could be annually sold. As there are several other branches of the trade, a still greater number of workmen of each kind would be required to match each other, so as to keep all nearly constantly employed. To find the exact number may amuse those fond of arithmetical recreations. We should express in whole numbers, prime to each other, the proportion of men required in one branch, to those in each of the others, and then the least common multiple of all the antecedents will give the number of men who must be employed in that branch, so as to prevent any waste.
In a new colony the man most likely to thrive is that sort of character familiarly called a jack of all trades, who in a thickly peopled country is generally on the brink of starvation. In the former case, every one has recourse to him, since from the scarcity of workmen he has, as it were, a monopoly in all his trades. In the latter case, no one employs him, since though he can do many things, each man can get the particular thing he happens to be in want of, done cheaper and better by somebody who has made that work his exclusive trade.
Every thing tends to increase the division of labour which extends the market or increases the number of those who can come for the commodity, or to whom the commodity can be brought. Thus the increased density of the population, by bringing a greater number of people within any given space, extends the market, and renders a greater division of labour practicable. In populations of equal density, the market may be considered as more extended, where good roads and means of carriage by water render it more easy and less expensive to transport goods or persons from one part of the country to another. But the advantages to be obtained by the existence of good roads will not so well repay the cost of keeping them up, in poor and thinly peopled countries, and therefore these in general will rather follow than lead the division of labour. But the sea and navigable rivers present a cheap mode of conveyance, with comparatively little previous preparation or expense, and accordingly it has been observed that it was in countries favoured with those natural advantages that manufactures, as well as trade and commerce, were first brought to any degree of perfection. Those circumstances in any country which produce a division of labour, by extending the market for manufactured goods, are therefore the density of the population, and the goodness of the road and other facilities for conveying goods or passengers by land or water. The circumstances in the goods themselves are their lightness or small bulk in proportion to their value, which makes the expense of transporting them to distant places comparatively small; and the cheapness of the article itself, or its fitness to satisfy the wants of the poorer and more numerous classes of the country. This last circumstance increases the market, by converting a larger proportion of the community into purchasers. It, as it were, increases the density of the population, since the density of population, as far as it affects the sale of any article, is merely the number of those persons who are able and willing to purchase it. Accordingly, it is in those goods that are intended for the use of the poor that the greatest improvements, by the introduction of machinery and the use of a more extended and better contrived system of a division of labour, have been established. The poor therefore derive the greatest benefits from such improvements. Those articles that are intended for the convenience or luxuries of the rich alone, can find few purchasers, since the rich are few in number. This paucity of purchasers renders it impossible that in any article intended for the use of the rich only, a minute or complicated system of a division of labour can be established, since the purchasers are too few to render its establishment a profitable speculation. But when an article can generally be purchased by the poor, the market becomes by that alone so extensive as to render the introduction of a proper system of division of labour a profitable speculation. It is therefore in the fabrication of those goods which are generally required by the labouring poor, that the greatest dexterity, ingenuity, and contrivance are to be found. How this is advantageous to the labourer, I shall hereafter point out. The next class of goods, according to the degree in which they admit of a division of labour, are the goods which, from their small bulk in proportion to their value, or their power of being conveniently packed, are the best suited for exportation, and these exportable commodities are also next in order, if the classification is made according to the different degrees of benefit which the labourer derives from an increase in the productive power of the labour employed in the manufacture of different articles. In such manufactures, labourers may be said to be the principal employers of one another in making articles for their own consumption, and whatever increases the productiveness of labour, must be of advantage to the person who is at once the consumer and the employer. By causing the articles which the labourer wants, to be produced at a less expenditure of labour, it enables him necessarily to purchase them with a smaller portion of his labour, or with the produce of a smaller portion of it. I propose next to consider the mixed effects which the introduction of a division of labour has upon the general condition of the labourer and the state of society, and to make some remarks upon the means of augmenting the good and mitigating the evil thence produced.*
[* ]Circumstances which it is unnecessary for me to mention here, compelled me to depart from this plan.