I've encountered the following Heinlein quote more than once these past few days:
“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.” [From Time Enough For Love]
This has been offered as a slap at the many thousands who've found themselves severely impeded by the effects of Superstorm Sandy: without power, low on gasoline, possibly without a home.
There are any number of conservatives who regard Heinlein as a genius's genius: the fount of all wisdom and never to be gainsaid. Well, sorry, lads and ladies, but he's not. He was a science fiction writer of considerable ability, a fair degree of insight, and a conservative bent. He was brighter than average, beyond all doubt. But like most of us, he was often wrong -- and his advice, particularly the crop culled from the abovementioned tome, is a mixed bag at best.
The operative word in the quote above is should. That makes it a matter of evaluation and opinion.
I've called should "my favorite word" for quite some time. In my position, I used to get a lot of "shoulds," as for example:
- "The server should be able to handle that load."
- "The simulation should be capable of automated operation."
- "That degree of resource consumption should be within capacity."
In response to which I posted the following over my desk, in very large type:
WARNING: In the Land of Should:
- All programs work on the first try;
- All programs do everything and take no time to develop;
- Even the most complex programs take up no memory or disk space, and require no operator familiarization!
YOU HAVE ENTERED THE LAND OF IS. Welcome. We hope you enjoy your stay.
Here in the Land of Is, we endure some rather unforgiving constraints. They're called the Laws of Nature. One of those laws is that men will languish in poverty unless they specialize. In response, we learned a little trick called the division of labor. It's the foundation of modern life.
Because of the division of labor, not all of us have to be farmers. Not all of us have to be butchers. Not all of us have to be mechanics. And thank God, not all of us have to pitch manure or write sonnets -- and there are most definitely persons who should be forcibly restrained from attempting either. By dividing the necessities and desiderata of life into specialties and allowing individuals to trade the fruits of their respective gifts, we have developed an economy of unexampled power, and produced a degree of prosperity many of us simply don't appreciate.
That sort of prosperity is not available under any other scheme of economic organization.
But hark! Specialization in response to the division of labor produces...specialists: Persons who are highly competent at one particular undertaking, and mediocre or worse at most others. A division-of-labor economy assumes that specialists of the many sorts we occasionally need are: 1) out there somewhere, and 2) available at need. Inasmuch as each of us is a specialist of some sort, no other assumption is plausible or workable.
What made Sandy so devastating wasn't that the relevant specialties -- construction; electrical work; heating; etc. -- all ceased to exist. Clearly that didn't happen. But because of the intensity of the storm, because of our geographical dispersion, and because the storm interfered seriously with transportation and fueling, a sufficiency of specialists of the most important sorts were unable to rush to the aid of those worst affected.
(I could go on about how government has worsened such matters by inserting its snout into disaster relief, but I'll spare you...for now.)
It will always remain possible that a natural disaster of Sandy's magnitude or worse will disrupt our normally smoothly functioning division-of-labor economy. To set aside reserves with which to cope with reasonably foreseeable developments is prudent, and to be encouraged. But ask yourself this:
The Gentleman Adventurer who sets out to explore Proxima Centauri would probably need all the skills Heinlein tabulated...well, except for that business about manure and sonnets; some perversions should be kept secret in perpetuity. The rest of us can get by fairly well with our individual specialties even in troublesome conditions, as long as transit and communication remain reasonably practical. When those requirements fail, I suppose we can all revert to hunter-gatherers and move into riverbank caves.