One of the phrases we hear today is this: “People have no pride in their work anymore.” There is a sense of loss in our era. The erosion of standards of craftsmanship represents an even greater moral erosion in our society.
Unquestionably, the free market system has produced remarkable examples of productivity. There is no way that we can even compare an inexpensive hand-held electronic calculator with the adding machines that were universal a decade ago. There is no way that we can compare a home entertainment center—stereo set, color television, TV games, etc.-with anything that existed prior to the 1920’s. Kings did not have anything like the gadgets that average American buyers consider to be normal. The high level of craftsmanship in a 1908 car, which in its day cost two or three times a typical family’s annual income, did not produce a car as reliable, comfortable, and inexpensive to operate as any Detroit assembly line can produce today. Mass production techniques have indeed produced miracles.
Nevertheless, there are serious problems with any system of production that men can devise, since the tasks of dominion are always costly, one way or another. The world in its fallen state resists our efforts to subdue it, and this includes ourselves. We are rebellious, too. We resent being subdued. We resent the organizational forms which call forth our labors. The problem with today’s production system, from a psychological and emotional point of view, is its impersonalization. This is as true in a socialist country as in a capitalist one. In fact, it is probably more true in a socialist country, since the deadening hand of bureaucracy has less competition under socialism.
There is a famous section in the early pages of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776) which describes the amazing productivity of a then-modern pin-making operation. A single pin-maker could scarcely produce one pin a day without the modern division of labor, but a team of ten using specialized equipment could, in Smith’s day, produce close to 50,000 pins in one day, or about 5,000 per man per day. Obviously, this productivity is of great benefit to the consumer of pins. The average man can buy all that he can use.
The cost of this productivity is not measured only by wages paid or the expense of the metal involved. Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliant young Frenchman whose visit to America led to the writing of his classic book, Democracy in America (1835), commented on Smith’s observations: “When a workman is unceasingly and exclusively engaged in the fabrication of one thing, he ultimately does his work with singular dexterity; but at the same time he loses the general faculty of applying his mind to the direction of his work. He every day becomes more adroit and less industrious; so it may be said of him that in proportion as the workman improves, the man is degraded. What can be expected by a man who has spent twenty years of his life in making heads for pins? And to what can that mighty human intelligence which has so often stirred the world be applied in him except it be to investigate the best way of making pins’ heads?”
Is there some resolution of this seeming paradox? How can we continue to be the beneficiaries of a system of price-competitive mass production and still avoid the potential depersonalization involved in the high degree of specialization required by modern mass production techniques? As serious Christians, can we suggest realistic alternatives to the secular world?
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