– May 22, 2020

Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.–Alfred North Whitehead

I don’t know how to shoe a horse. I’m a lousy carpenter. Growing food? I’m not much of a gardener. Medicine? Beyond “clean the wound and put some ointment and a Band-Aid on it,” I’m not a lot of help. If you listen to people who bemoan the loss of “basic life skills,” the world has lost quite a lot because of my failures here. 

Or has it? 

One of the time-honored traditions of any civilization is for the young to complain about the old and vice versa. The young, it might be said, ‘lack basic life skills,” hence the popular hashtag #adulting. But what are the kids these years really lacking, if anything? What we think of as “basic” life skills change over time. Indeed, one of the paradoxes of getting richer is that the enriching society gets to lose skills.

Think about cooking and sewing. When we cook and sew, it’s for fun, as an educational experience, or to practice taking responsibility for things. If these were means to the ends of food and clothing, there are more efficient ways to get them. When we cook and sew and whatever with the kids, it’s in the service of other educational and social goals, not so that they can learn “basic life skills.”

One reason is that I’m not sure exactly what that means. What counts as a “basic life skill” evolves over time. For a good chunk of our history, literacy wasn’t a “basic life skill.” Neither was writing. Or math. Or plumbing. Or HVAC repair. Now elementary literacy and numeracy are basically prerequisites for any job with a future. Before the division of labor proceeded to this point, having a toolbox and being handy around the house was pretty essential.

Cooking and sewing weren’t fun educational diversions. They were essential if you wished to be fed and clothed. All of that has changed with the advancing division of labor that allows us to outsource and automate things we do comparatively poorly and specialize in the things we do comparatively well.

This is a point Adam Smith raised starting with chapter 3 of An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. The more we can specialize and divide labor, the more we can get for that labor. I write articles, review books, and give lectures. Other people do stuff I’m not good at. Everybody wins.

A lot of people with “basic life skills” might have a favorite tool. Mine is my wallet. This is to say that the best way to get household repairs done given that I take no pleasure in doing them is for me to focus in my area of comparative advantage–reading and writing and lecturing and so on–and then use the income I make from it to pay someone who actually knows what they’re doing to do things at which I have a comparative (and in the case of things like home repair, absolute) disadvantage–like moving furniture or plumbing or fixing things or what have you.

Maybe it’s a moral failing on my part. Or maybe it would be an even bigger moral failing to take the time and energy I could otherwise devote to other pursuits and waste them–and I use the word waste deliberately–learning how to do things I could otherwise pay someone else to do. Given that I get no consumption value from basic home repair and in fact actually rather hate it, paying someone else to do it for me is, in fact, good stewardship of our limited time, talent, and treasure.

In his excellent parody of the song “Havana,” the musician Remy points out that “free trade’s like a magic wand/turns what you make best into what you want.” Thanks to the social division of labor and our commercial society, the world gets more economics content while I’m able to get my house fixed by someone who actually knows what they’re doing.

Everyone wins–or at least, as Paul Heyne argues, everyone with a right to be consulted.

Or think about investing. You don’t really need to follow the stock market closely–just pick a balanced portfolio of mutual funds. The development of products like lifecycle funds makes even this a lot easier. 

The lists of “basic life skills” that can be outsourced and automated goes on forever. Laundry? It can be outsourced as there are places that will pick up and drop off for you. What about handwriting and even typing? Voice-to-text will do a lot of that for us, and services like Grammarly are there to check and improve our writing for us.

When I mentioned that I’m not terribly concerned about the kids’ terrible handwriting, a colleague mentioned that they will someday need to sign official documents–but even this is going the way of the dodo with the development of services like HelloSign, DocuSign, and others. In several years of using a password manager, signing documents online, and using biometric identifiers like fingerprints and facial recognition (on my phone and computer) I’ve had no problems at all with online security.

“Basic” skills, therefore, are contingent. I’ve never killed and plucked a chicken, which I’m told my grandmother had to do with some regularity. When I find myself responsible in any way, shape, or form for actually growing food it has been for fun (“fun,” I might say). We are able to lead fuller and richer lives thanks to the global division of labor, and the “basic” life skills about which so many people fret are, it turns out, not so basic after all.

Art Carden

Art Carden

Art Carden is a Senior Fellow at the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama and a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute.

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