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The Division of Labor and the Beginnings of Western Civilization

I’ve recently taken it upon myself to go through Carroll Quigley’s epic “history of the world in our time,” Tragedy and Hope. tragedy_and_hope_by_carroll_quigleyFor those new to the libertarian scene, this book stands in a unique place as far as history books go. It tracks in very specific detail the rise of the Fabian socialists in Europe and how the inner circles of these groups integrated into positions of power in the Western world and had been (largely until Britain was destroyed in WWII) behind major power players in the early effort toward Anglo-American empire. This includes those close to the American banking cartel (the Fed), the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission, and so on.

More blogging on that to come.

In any event, I found and interesting tidbit much farther back in time: at the dawn of what can properly be called “Western Civilization” (700-970 ad). Essentially Western Civilization was born on what was left behind in the fall of Roman Empire. When the Roman Empire began its remarkable downfall, smaller geographical locations began to split apart and handle things separately. This sparked an era of capital accumulation (capital of course being the bedrock of a prosperous and modern economy) and investment of capital into higher means of production (to use a Bohm-Bawerkian idea).

But what caught my eye was something else that came along with the new idea of capital investment:

“…a change from… the centralized, state-centered political orientation of the Roman world to the decentralized, private-power feudal network of the medieval world. In the new system a small number of men, equipped and trained to fight, received dues and services from the overwhelming majority of men who were expected to till the soil.

For those who have studied theorists like Hans-Hermann Hoppe, this should sound familiar. In Hoppe’s recounting of the transition from the feudal order to monarchy in medieval Europe, there were those who might be considered “natural elites;” those who were especially judicious in their thinking and far more capable of acting as “free market” judges and law-interpreters. Eventually they began to ignore the rich tradition of naturally arising “judges” and instead began to force the people to pay for their services and thus taxes again were brought back to society.

But what is interesting is Quigley’s mentioning of the “dues and services” that were given to the fighters/protectors and sourced in the tillers of the soil (the workers). The lesson that I want to draw from this is simple: what made Western Civilization unique was the emphasis on the division of labor! It wasn’t equal, no, because equality qua equality is not what builds a productive society. The division of labor and the rise of specialization is really fundamental to the success of the west (see also de Soto’s book). In fact, Quigley highlights the inequality:

From this inequitable but effective defensive system emerged an inequitable distribution of political power and, in turn, an inequitable distribution of the social economic income. This, in time, resulted in an accumulation of capital, which, by giving rise to demand for luxury goods of remote origin, began to shift the whole economic emphasis of the society from its earlier organization in self-sufficient agrarian units (manors) to commercial interchange, economic specialization, and, by the thirteenth century, to an entirely new pattern of society with towns, a bourgeois class, spreading literacy, growing freedom of alternative social choices, and new, often disturbing, thoughts.”

Indeed! The inequality, far from being a systemic stain on the New Era, was in actuality part of the explanation of its stability. It was the “inequitable distribution of income” that allowed those who brought more value to the market to save and invest. Without this key component of savings and capital accumulation (much to the disapproval of the consumption-oriented Keynesians), there would be no Western Civilization. Thus, the emphasis in our time needs to be on private property and the glories of the division of labor and we must explicitly oppose any attempts to drive civilization toward egalitarian ends.

In complete rejection of Marxist and cultural egalitarian goals, it was the rise of the bourgeois, the high income earners, the beneficiaries of the proper entrepreneurial decisions, that were the foundation of Western Civilization. And this started not just in the industrial factory, but right at the very heart of society: the production of law and order. The division of labor allowed those who were good at something to be paid for doing that thing en masse and for many other consumers on the market rather than the agrarian-specific system wherein everyone produces only for their immediate needs. And just as interestingly, it took the collapse of the central (Roman) state to awaken the conditions necessary for a radically decentralized phenomenon to begin working.

Published in C.Jay Engel