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Rothbard on Self-Sufficiency and the Division of Labor

February 24, 2010

I was listening to the Mises Podcast and came across Rothbard's wonderful 1972 lecture Scarcity and Choice. Around 34:09 to about 38:00 he discusses why specialization and the division of labor is useful, indeed essential, for civilization and human life and prosperity. He criticizes those intellectuals who still maintain that we should go back to a regime of self-sufficiency; that the specialization and division of labor is evil and alienating. He mocks the intellectuals who, as Marx put it, dream of some communist utopia where everyone would spend an hour at the factory, an hour at the field, an hour writing and thinking, and so on. As Rothbard notes, no one will be a great mathematician by devoting half an hour a day to it before rushing off to the fields (think of Malcolm Gladwell's "10,000 hour rule" in Outliers, according to which "the key to success in any field is, to a large extent, a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of around 10,000 hours"); so, without specialization, creative, intellectual development would be impossible; as would economic prosperity. We would "give up most of the production of the human race."

Rothbard seemed to find a bit bewildering that there were, back in 1972, still intellectuals favoring self-sufficiency and attacking the division of labor and capitalism as being alienating. After all, didn't they understand what pre-industrialist conditions were like? Didn't they understand how much worse was the quality of life when self-sufficiency was the rule? But similar claims still abound, even among some libertarian intellectuals, mostly left-libertarians and their fellow travelers, who seem to be nostalgic for the simpler, agrarian times of yore (see Left-Libertarian Science Fiction: An Oxymoron?; On the Fate of our Left-Libertarian Comrades' Ideas). It is no doubt true that state subsidization and intervention in various aspects of the market, such as transportation and protectionist or other laws that raise barriers to entry to smaller firms, have distorted the economy and made self-sufficiency more expensive or less feasible than it otherwise would be, but this does not imply that there is something wrong with the institution of employment, with firms, with industrialism, international trade, or the division labor.

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