I’m an economist, not a tool guy. Sure, I own tools— screwdriver, hammer and pliers—but using them has always been problematic, as my gifts lie in other areas. I can write, publish, teach and sing. My interpersonal skills have always served me well as I enjoy meeting and interacting with others, especially in debate when the mutual interest among participants is the development of right reason. I am thankful to have been able to work almost all of these talents into a career.
Nevertheless, I am not a tool guy. This used to be a point of consternation for my brother and me; we felt shortchanged by our father who, whatever his strengths, never bothered to share the basics of auto mechanics, home repair or construction. For a very long time, although we eventually mastered the use of hammers (those go with the nails) and screwdrivers (not the drinks), the tool arena was shut off from us.
Although we knew it existed, it was not for us, and as a result, we often had the experience of walking through a Lowe’s or Home Depot witnessing other men—often wearing Wrangler jeans and sporting tobacco tins—carting large, mysterious tools to the registers while we picked up, say, an extra flashlight or rake.
Once last fall, when buying some $2.99 nails—they may be used for hanging pictures and skewering vegetables—a largish man with close-cropped hair, a thick brown beard that broke at his lower eyelashes and forearms the size of my biceps appeared in the checkout line behind me, free-lifting something that, if I had to guess, was the engine to a Mack truck. But I wasn’t sure, so drawing on my interpersonal, small-talk skills, I asked him (in an involuntarily squeaky voice), “So, what’s that?”
He grunted a response that wasn’t a grunt but was nonetheless incomprehensible given my shortcomings in speaking RealMan-lish. So, I nodded understandingly like someone who forgot he had multiple Mack truck engines crammed under his workbench, wiped my hand on my corduroys as if it had dirt on it, and checked out.
But not with shame. While not being conversant in Toolology used to bother me, I now see it as a strength both for myself and society in general. The fact that I don’t exactly get the glories of the O2 sensor socket simply means I have spent my time developing other skills more natural to me. The resulting division of labor into specialized units has not just reaped personal benefits. It is also a central characteristic of the Industrial Revolution and the astounding rates of economic output we still witness today.
For most of us, being a jack of all trades means we are not terribly productive in any of them, but when we are a jack of one or few trades, two important benefits emerge. First, we become more productive as skills and technologies improve over time. This means that as more people specialize in the production of different goods and services, society itself becomes richer as more output is produced in the aggregate than would have resulted if each worker attempted to produce everything he or she needed.
Second, when labor is divided, opportunities for self-sufficiency become mass-produced as individuals hone narrow skills into jobs that allow them to provide for themselves and their families. These benefits are much more than material. When we specialize in production and sell the surplus of what we produce, we indirectly trade our surplus for the surplus of others specializing in other forms of labor.
The resulting interdependencies between business owners and employees, computer techs and tomato farmers, tool guys, stockbrokers and countless others form the basis for civilization itself. This is why policies that hinder the expansion of the specialization and division of labor—think of minimum wage laws that reward capital over labor or regulatory burdens that favor large corporations over small businesses—have the effect of disconnecting people and de-civilizing society in general.
Yes, I actually think of these ideas every time I visit a hardware store, and instead of feeling shame when interacting with men who recognized long ago there is no such thing as a flux capacitor (who knew?!), I am instead grateful for how their efforts improve my quality of life. One hopes they comprehend how my efforts— and those of countless other people—enrich theirs.
Christopher Westley is Dean of Florida Gulf Coast University’s Lutgert College of Business. E-mail: cwestley@ fgcu.edu.