Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Man vs. Wild and the Division of Labor

The sun is scorching the Namibian desert, and a silhouette of a man appears along the red rock face. Cameras pan across towards the figure and suddenly a Puff Adder snake slithers from underneath a rock close to the man. The Puff Adder is one of the most dangerous snakes in all of Africa due to its immense size and the poisonous venom it secretes in its fangs. The man quickly grabs a hefty rock and throws it at the head of the snake ending its life. Almost unbelievably the hero grabs the head of the snake and saws it off with his knife and then takes a bite out of the body of the snake. Is this a scene from a movie? Is this man Indiana Jones? No.

Click on READ MORE for the extended post.

This is a scene from the Discovery Channel series Man vs. Wild, and our rugged hero is Bear Grylls, an ex-special forces officer from Britain. Is the above scene out of the ordinary? Nope, the show gets much more intense ( Bear drinks water from elephant dung, fishes with maggots in the Alps, and eats raw Zebra meat from a carcass in Africa). The premise of the show is that the survival expert must be dropped into a hostile environment and survive for up to 5 days without any given shelter, food, or water. Each episode finds Bear Grylls finding unique (and often sketchy) water and food sources, and creating his own shelter using his vast knowledge about survival tactics and indigenous plant life. Whether it be desert, plains, tundra, jungle, or even a deserted island, Grylls finds a way to squeak by in life.

By now you're probably wondering, what does this have to do with economics. Those of you that know me well know that I often exclaim "That's Capitalism!" when I see amazing things like Porsche Carreras or have great opportunities. After seeing the recent episode I immediately thought to myself, "Hmm isn't capitalism great to let me sit lazily watching this crazy man survive in high definition on my plasma flat-screen!". Furthermore, capitalism is allowing this crazy man to provide me utility by watching him surviving in the wilderness, and presumably he is very well-paid for doing things many people would never want to do. As our new VP Liya would say, this is "non-unique". True enough, this really is a bland point. And then it hit me, the real amazing part is not that capitalism gives the opportunity for Bear Grylls to know how to survive but the really amazing thing is that most of us don't NEED to know how to survive like Bear Grylls to continue living.

We can chalk this fact up to the division of labor. Instead of two people both trying to do everything for themselves individually, one provides food, the other provides shelter. Through their specialization and free trade they both gain free time, or at least more of the goods they exchange. Adam Smith wrote about this in The Wealth of Nations. It is this division of labor that lifted humanity out of nomadic tribes, and the extent of this division of labor is what makes up most of the difference between richer and poorer nations. The concept is fairly simple, maybe even too simple, and we've often heard it before in economics, anthropology, and even history classes. I guess that too often we overlook the power of this concept because it is so simple.

I don't want to understate the immense awesomeness of the division of labor. For hundreds of thousands of years humanity barely made survival in day-to-day life. Today we can devote less than a few minutes to thinking where to get our food and water from, and most of us can relax for at least half of our day without needing to do much. This seems obvious and normal to us, but watching Man vs. Wild for an hour can really show the work involved with surviving in the natural world all by oneself. How much time do you spend each day finding a clean water source or catching game to eat for dinner? The division of labor saves us from all of the hardship involved with that sort of lifestyle. Anything that allows for more division of labor (ie. new technology allowing workers to be freed up for other processes) creates more wealth, more choices, and a greater betterment for mankind. What a beautiful set-up that allows us to avoid being forced to spend all of our time barely surviving and lets us live in relative luxury. It is only in the capitalist system of free-markets that provides full room for the division of labor to grow to the fullest extent.

The message to take from all of this is that it can be easy to forget the simple but important lessons of economics that shape our everyday lives. Think how ridiculous it is when someone argues against dividing labor further, as the division of labor always grows wealth. Next time someone says that a new un-manned machine process will cut jobs or will take away from the human element of a job, just remind them that we could possibly have full employment if we stopped all cooperation. Without the division of labor we could all be fully employed in providing for our own survival without cooperation. Fortunately most would not chose such a scenario, as anyone who has seen Man vs. Wild would tell you that it is not the most pleasant way of living. At least it makes good television to watch while enjoying the free time that the division of labor allows!


Harry David said...

Good post, Kevin. Smithian (division of labor is limited by the extent of the market) and Ricardian (comparative advantage) division of labor are both awesome devices for taking society from "the lowest form of barbarism to the highest form of opulence" (paraphrasing Smith).

I will never have to suck the water out of an elephant dung (godwilling).

Ian Dunois said...

Great post!
I never watch Man vs Wild, but I do love ice cream.
Thanks division of labor!

Astrid Arca said...

kev writes "just remind them that we could possibly have full employment if we stopped all cooperation."

it is witty comments like that that gets me into trouble and has people going "aaaaastrid!"

agreed though, 100%, and i'll keep on torturing my roommate (among others) with the beauty of the division and specialization of labor!

Michael Hilferty said...


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