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I, Star Wars

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07/26/2010

Leonard E. Read’s classic I, Pencil stands as one of the twentieth century’s pedagogical triumphs. Thousands upon thousands of people have learned about the futility of central planning by considering the incomprehensibly complex processes that go into the production of something as mundane as a pencil. It’s also a process of cooperation that has given us the amazing visual spectacles that entertain us and that we take for granted. I’m a huge fan of the Star Wars saga, the brainchild of George Lucas. Lucas was a visionary, to be sure, but he wasn’t able to do it alone.

Some of the bonus features in the Star Wars DVDs illustrate this perfectly. On the bonus disc that accompanies Revenge of the Sith, there’s a documentary about all of the people and processes that contributed to the production of a single minute of the lightsaber battle between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker. They had to deal with props, computer animation, costuming, and a dizzying array of other tasks that no one person knows how to do. Lucas’s artistic vision (realized with a few assists from Steven Spielberg, as the “making of” documentary shows) was only made possible by the divisions of labor and knowledge made possible by the market economy. Revenge of the Sith cost about $113 million to make and grossed almost $850 million worldwide. And yet not a single person in the world knows how to make a single minute of the movie from start to finish.

One might be tempted to claim that this represents what’s wrong with commercial society: the social division of labor allows us to spend all of our time gawking and Star Wars and less time reading Great Literature. First, I’m not sure that’s true, as Charles Courtemanche and I discuss here (ungated draft here). Second, one has to ask where Great Writers would get their pens, their paper, and the leisure to write their Great Literature if it weren’t for the social division of labor. Adam Smith was right when he said that there is “there is much ruin in a nation,” but casting off specialization and exchange in the name of refining ourselves culturally and intellectually is ultimately self-defeating.

Art Carden is assistant professor of economics, Brock School of Business, Samford University, Birmingham, Alabama.

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