June 26, 2005
Heinlein’s Bad Quote.
- 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.
- -Lazarus Long, Time Enough For Love
I guess that’s the end of economics then, no specialization, no division of labour, no trading on comparative advantage. The only non-trivial and non-obvious finding of all the social sciences, Ricardo on trade, thrown out.
Hey, I love the stories too but that idea above is a real stinker.
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You just have a low opinion of human beings. He didn't say how good you have to be at all of those things.
Our schools create specialization by wasting too much time on trivia. They give you 3 courses in FORTRAN but don't explain how a von Neumann machine works. You can find that in chapter 10 of THE ART OF ELECTRONICS by Horowitz & Hill.
M.I.T. produces electrical engineers that can't solder. ROFL
Posted by: psikeyhackr | Jun 26, 2005 4:54:40 PM
So all that remains for me is the dying?
Posted by: Mike Cunningham | Jun 26, 2005 5:16:08 PM
If you can't do all those things, how do you know shich one gives you the best comparative advantage?
Besides, that diaper isn't going to wait for you to find someone who's better at it.
Posted by: Aaron Pollock | Jun 26, 2005 5:58:06 PM
InstaRant no 53b : a specialist is not the same as an expert. If someone is specialised in something, it does not necessarily mean they are expert in it, just that they can't do anything else. By contrast, most experts I have ever met tend to be expert in more than one thing.
I don't think Heinlein was espousing an economic theory there, but rather a philosophy of life. Termites may make great termite hills, but would you want to be one ?
Posted by: fFreddy | Jun 26, 2005 7:27:01 PM
It sounds like an excellent idea to me, maybe not from the point of view of society (I agree a country full of Jack-of-all-trades wouldn't be ideal), but as advice to an individual on how to get the most out of life, I think it's got a lot to recommend it.
Posted by: Larry | Jun 26, 2005 8:47:35 PM
Tim: just because economic forces demand that, as a system, we increasingly specialise, it doesn't mean that we as people shouldn't aim to be Renaissance Men. Otherwise, we're accepting that the market dehumanises us and forces us to become cogs in a machine. If that were true, I'd be against capitalism.
Posted by: Blimpish | Jun 26, 2005 10:41:01 PM
of course the division of labour has advantages. but take it too far and the disadvantages also show up - overspecialisation, lack of functional flexibility. Like most things, not black and white.
Posted by: rjw | Jun 26, 2005 10:41:28 PM
you and he are not talking about he same thing!
Posted by: Lorenzo | Jun 26, 2005 11:09:23 PM
Aren't you taking that passage a bit literally? In that you could qualify the first sentence with "...if he really had to."
Posted by: N.I.B. | Jun 26, 2005 11:12:46 PM
I have always taken that to mean that a wide focus is rather better than a narrow one. Taking a whack at diaper changing or equation solving while waiting for an expert to come along is a great deal better than a yowling baby or having your ship hit the rocks at midnight.
If you actually look at the list there are very few things on it which require much in the way of expertise - even I can make computers do what I want them to do at least 20% of the time.
Division of labour is wonderfully rational and terrifically productive; but taking orders and comforting the dying are hardly what Ricardo had in mind.
Besides, Heinlein was writing about a life in full rather than the sad little lives people without his daring are consigned to.
Posted by: Jay Currie | Jun 27, 2005 12:04:26 AM
Er, not that it matters, but MIT engineers do know how to solder. It's actually a very hands-on place.
Posted by: Scott Lawton | Jun 27, 2005 1:30:37 AM
Heinlein's heroes were generalists. This is a character speaking... I happen to agree that overspecialization is a bad thing. I think you're looking for the meaning of life in the wrong place.
Posted by: Andi | Jun 27, 2005 2:01:04 AM
Sorry Tim, you're completely missing the point. There's a reason why you find human beings in every environment from arctic wastes to arid deserts - and that's that we are the planet's greatest all-rounders.
Sure you can find animals that can swim better than us, climb better than us, run better than us, and so on. What you can't is find an animal that is better AT ALL THESE THINGS than us.
The moment you specialise you are at the mercy of your environment. And that goes for individuals in the workplace as much as species on this planet.
Posted by: David Wildgoose | Jun 27, 2005 8:18:04 AM
women should be able to change a nappy, cook a tasty meal, plan an invasion, wax her naughty bits, programme a VCR, open a bottle of beer, take orders, pitch manure etc.
men should have a woman.
Sounds far better.
Posted by: Monjo | Jun 27, 2005 12:09:00 PM
I take it you are a single man, Monjo and hoping to receive a mail order bride in the post?
Posted by: mrs mcmuffin | Jun 28, 2005 8:41:43 AM