Guang-Zhen Sun. the Division of Labor in Economics: A History

By Groenewegen, Peter | History of Economics Review, Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

Guang-Zhen Sun. the Division of Labor in Economics: A History


Groenewegen, Peter, History of Economics Review


Guang-Zhen Sun. The Division of Labor in Economics: a History. [Routledge Studies in the History of Economics No. 142. London: Routledge. 2012. Pp. xvii + 258. ISBN 978-0-415-44907-6. 85.00 [pounds sterling].

This book presents a history of the division of labour in economics from the early literature of the Greek philosophers and the Chinese, via the Islamic, medieval, mercantilist and classical economics literature to that of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This material is not comprehensively presented; in fact, the opposite of high selectivity is a more appropriate description of the contents. This is easily shown from the book's table of contents which classifies contents into four parts: 'Pre-Smith Analysis'; 'The Smithian Economics of the Division of Labor'; 'Marx on the Division of Labor in Capitalist Manufacturing and the Hayekian Problem of Knowledge'; and finally, 'Economic Development Framed in the Economics of the Division of Labor'. An introduction (of eight pages) and an epilogue of three pages complete the text of the book. In addition, the book contains a good bibliography as well as separate name and subject indexes.

In his Preface, the author indicates that the notion of this book came to him as a suitable project after he had completed an introduction in 2005 for a book of readings on the division of labour published in that year. Naturally enough, this was largely devoted to the specific readings he had selected. It may also be noted that part of the book was prepared while Sun was a senior Logan Fellow in Economics at Monash University (from 2004 to 2008), so that the book also has an Australian connection (for example, p. 187, where Sun's Monash experience relevant to his work on the division of labour is mentioned). Whether it benefited from this potential contact with Australian historians of the division of labour does, however, not seem to have been the case.

The selectivity of the book's contents may be illustrated in greater detail by examining the contents of each of the eight chapters. The short introduction (Chapter 1) summarises the aim of the book largely by more detailed discussion of its contents by chapter. Chapter 2 is devoted to reviewing the early analysis of the division of labour. Its four successive sub-sections deal respectively with Greek origins, the early Chinese literature, discussions of the topic by Islamic scholars and its examination by medieval Latin scholastics (who drew on both the ancient Greek and the Islamic traditions in commenting on the subject). Some of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European literature is treated in Chapter 3. The views of William Petty, Dudley North and Henry Martyn are discussed in its subsection 1; the contribution of Ernst Ludwig Carl (largely based on Hutchison's 1988 discussion) and that of Josiah Tucker follow in subsection 2; Mandeville's extensive treatment is presented in section 3; while the French encyclopedists are mentioned in subsection 4. Chapter 3 is quite incomplete in its coverage. Many British writers on the subject are ignored, as are most of the French and all of the Italians. A glance at the articles on division of labour in the first and second editions of The New Palgrave provides easy accessible evidence on this claim.

Chapter 4 is largely devoted to the very important and influential views of Adam Smith on the division of labour, with side references to (almost equally important) post-Smithian developments by three leading modern economists: Alfred Marshall, Allyn Young and George Stigler. Chapter 4 (96-7) also, surprisingly, notes Sraffa's (1926) 'devastating' critique of Marshall's theory of external economies, and the reply thereto by Young. For reasons not clear to me the chapter has an appendix on the 'Smith-Turgot myth', a matter totally irrelevant to their discussion of division of labour, since the independence of Smith's and Turgot's views on this topic has never been seriously questioned.

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