The Origin of the Division of Labour: Smith and Pownall

The origin of the division of labour was viewed differently by Smith, who attributed it to the human propensity for social life, and by Pownall,[1] who pointed instead to innate differences in capabilities. The two theses have profoundly different implications on issues such as the social contract theory, the view of social stratification as a fact of nature and indeed the positive or negative evaluation of labour itself. According to Smith (1776, p. 25),

This division of labour, from which so many advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a certain propensity in human nature ... to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another. ... It is common to all men, and to be found in no other race of animals, which seem to know neither this nor any other species of contracts.

Smith’s thesis, then, was that division of labour originates in the tendency of men to enter into relations of reciprocal exchange, or in other words - we might say - to human sociability. To this characteristic Smith also attributed the origin of language; moreover, it distinguishes men from animals. According to Pownall (1776, pp. 338-9), instead, the division of labour originates in the desire to exploit the innate differences of labour abilities of the different individuals:

Before a man can have the propensity to barter, he must have acquired somewhat, which he does not want himself, and must feel, that there is something which he does want, that another person has in his way acquired .... Nature has so formed us, as that the labour of each must take one special direction, in preference to, and to the exclusion of some other equally necessary line of labour ... This limitation, however, of [man’s] capacities, and the extent of his wants, necessarily creates to each man an accumulation of some articles of supply, and a defect of others, and is the original principle of his nature, which creates, by a reciprocation of wants, the necessity of an intercommunion of mutual supplies; this is the forming cause, not only of the division of labour, but the efficient cause of that community, which is the basis and origin of civil government.

Pownall’s position rests on two assumptions that appear extraneous to Smith’s views. The first is that each individual knows his own abilities, what he wants and what the others can offer before getting in touch with them; such knowledge should be innate in order to constitute the origin of the division of labour and of exchanges. The second assumption is that there be original differences in abilities among the different individuals that, apart from constituting the spring that determines the division of labour, also constitute a ‘natural’ precondition of society’s economic stratification.[2] As far as the first aspect is concerned, the view of the individual as a logical prius with respect to society is opposed to the Smithian idea, typical of the tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment, of the individual as an intrinsically social being. As for the second aspect, namely the existence of a natural basis for economic and social differentiations, it is explicitly rejected by Smith. In fact, he affirms that he considers the different working abilities as mostly acquired as a consequence of the division of labour:

The difference of natural talents in different men is, in reality, much less than we are aware of; and the very different genius which appears to distinguish men of different professions, when grown up to maturity, is not upon many occasions so much the cause, as the effect of the division of labour. The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature, as from habit, custom, and education. (Smith 1776, pp. 28-29)

The contrast between the democratic content of the Smithian thesis and the conservative element in Pownall’s thesis is worth stressing, both because it may help us in understanding the innovative and progressive nature of Smith’s social philosophy and because the contrast between the two views repeatedly recurs in the course of time.

  • [1] Thomas Pownall (1722-1805) had been governor of Massachusetts in 1757-1759; from1767 to 1780 he was a member of Parliament.
  • [2] The doctrine of the intrinsic differences of abilities was already present (and dominant)in the Greek tradition and then in the Scholastic period; around the middle of theeighteenth century, it was taken up, in the framework of a subjective theory of value,by Galiani (1751, p. 49): ‘By providence men are born to various crafts, but in unequalproportions of rarity, corresponding with wonderous sagacity to human needs.’ Thispassage also indicates a crucial difficulty of the traditional view: if we admit that thedistribution of abilities among the individuals is innate, only the ‘invisible hand’ ofProvidence can guarantee that the availability of abilities corresponds to the requirements of society.
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