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Rothbard on Self-Sufficiency and the Division of Labor

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.


{ 1 comment… add one }
  • Ashley Smith February 25, 2010, 1:23 pm

    This piece presents a good characterization of the problems with Left-Libertarian ideas. I was having this conversation with a friend of mine the other day and we were discussing this very problem. We are both fairly new to Libertarianism, he being 18 and me 24. He had toyed with the possibility of a blend of communism and libertarianism and wanted to know why anarcho-capitalism would work, but why anarcho-collectivism wouldn’t.

    I have been working on an “opt-out” theory for the past year or so, and what it boils down to for me is that in an anarcho-capitalist society you have the ability to opt out of the system of market engagement and can choose not to participate. You can pool your resources with a group of people and form your own communal living arrangement and go back go agriculture and share everything you have. Or, you can choose to participate in the capitalist free market.

    However, in a Left-Libertarian society the entire system would rest on the absence of private property and communal living. No one would be allowed to opt-out and choose suddenly to have private property and engage in capitalist-style commerce. If they did, the system would crumble. So if someone branched out and decided they wanted to engage in capitalism and private property, it would be in the best interest of the community to force them to stop…thus not Libertarian at all.

    This has led me to conclude that the only system that maximizes liberty is one that allows for an “opt out” principle, meaning that if I choose not to participate that I’m allowed to and it doesn’t negatively harm those who remain in the system. Libertarian Anarcho-Capitalism seems to be the only system which allows for that “opt out”. The American Founders seemed to somewhat desire that ability, arguing in many cases for the ability for states to secede, but we know how that turned out.

    I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this Stephan. Remember, I’m new to this so forgive me for any ideological contradictions I present. I’m learning.

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