Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Against Specialization

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects." —Robert Heinlein

In a scant few weeks, I will be introducing students to the notion of specialization and the gains from trade. However, the sad fact is that there are not markets in everything. A good human being should probably be prepared for them.

I may be able to hire one person to grow flowers, another to pick them, another to transport them vast distances, another to arrange them decoratively, another to take my order and orchestrate their arrival, and yet another to deliver them in an attempt to comfort the dying. In many cases that may even be enough. Other time it is not. Have I spent the time to build a relationship with that person to provide comfort? Have I pondered the weightier matters to discuss difficult questions with compassion and understanding?

In The Bishop's Wife and its remake The Preacher's Wife (both enjoyable Christmas movies), the reverend asks his angel to specialize in his family relations while he specializes in his ecumenical activities, and learns to regret it.

We have markets for health care, but not for health. I cannot hire someone to do my exercise for me. (And boy did I get some funny looks from people when I opted to walk 20 minutes from campus to the club for lunch instead of taking the shuttle!)

Specialization is for markets and market participants. For everything else, there is no Mastercard. Be prepared.

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