Top Gear and The Division of Labor

You may or may not agree, but I think Top Gear to be one of the best television shows ever produced. Yes, they were politically incorrect more often than not, yes they were occasionally outrageous and yes they courted controversy. But also, the show was of extremely high production quality and if nothing else, it made for excellent entertainment.

Phull paisa vasool, as they say.

But hey, Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May can also help us understand the importance of the division of labor.

What is the division of labor?

Here is the opening paragraph from an essay on the topic over on EconLib:

Division of labor combines specialization and the partition of a complex production task into several, or many, sub-tasks. Its importance in economics lies in the fact that a given number of workers can produce far more output using division of labor compared to the same number of workers each working alone. Interestingly, this is true even if those working alone are expert artisans. The production increase has several causes. According to Adam Smith, these include increased dexterity from learning, innovations in tool design and use as the steps are defined more clearly, and savings in wasted motion changing from one task to another.

Two questions at play here, really. First, what is division of labor? It is “the specialization and the partition of a complex production task into several sub-tasks”. Second, what is the benefit to society of this concept? It is “the fact that a given number of workers can produce far more output using division of labor compared to the same number of workers each working alone.”

And over millennia, this division of labor has resulted in humans building ever more complex things in ever more affluent societies. This process has, of course, rapidly accelerated over the last two hundred years or so. But precisely because we have gotten so very good at division of labor, we have experienced yet another benefit of this concept:

The reason is that division of labor produces a cost advantage where none existed beforeā€”an advantage based simply on specialization. Consequently, even in a world without comparative advantage, division of labor would create incentives for specialization and exchange.

This, to me, is an underrated point, and worthy of elaboration. Division of labor is (partly) specializing in a particular task, but the magical bit is that division of labor itself creates incentives for further specialization. Or, to put it another way, division of labor begets more division of labor, and more specialization.

And one indication of this, to me, is the fact that we’ve created a society in which we tell three middle-aged British gentlemen that they can spend about three decades and counting on creating ridiculous, over-the-top television shows that will entertain and enrage in equal measure. This – climbing dams in a car, dropping a car from the sky, taping a car on top of another car and playing football with cars, among other mad things – is what they should specialize in.

Not only will we lap it up, but we’ll pay for knock-offs, spin-offs and versions in different countries. This is going to sound faintly ridiculous, but imagine the three of them trying to pull this off in a hunter-gatherer society. Not a show about cars, of course, but a proposal that the rest of the tribe should get on with the business of hunting down food or foraging for it, while the three of them entertain the others with mad-cap capers. I suspect it wouldn’t have gone down well.

But today, we have enough of a surplus from other parts of society for us to be able to say that hey, a section of our 7 billion plus tribe should drop cars from the sky, and record it so that the rest of us can watch it and be entertained.

Which brings me back to another topic of discussion: perhaps you are of the opinion that surely this is not what we created our modern civilization for. All the efforts of the past thousands of year culminate in… “this?“, you might quite reasonably ask.

Well, this and the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory. Specialization has resulted in us building tunnels over four kilometers in length so that we can detect gravitational waves that originated 1.3 billion light years away also.

Go back to the question embedded in the first sentence of this section: what did we create our modern civilization for? The question is “what”, not “how”. Economics doesn’t tell you what you should be optimizing for, that’s your business.

But if you have decided that what you should be optimizing for is having cars fall out of the sky, then economics can tell you how to go about getting this to happen. Economics will help you align the incentives, set the prices, deal with the unintended (is that the word I’m looking for?) consequences, and execute the trades necessary for the show (or the laboratory) to come to fruition, and stay popular.

But every time I watch an episode from Top Gear, I can’t help but wonder at how far we’ve come. You might wonder if the direction in which we’ve come is the right one, but you can’t help but marvel at the distance civilization has traveled.

What a time to be alive.