Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Generalism Versus Specialism: An Inclusive Approach

     Some debates are destined to continue indefinitely. One that has stuck in my craw for many years arises from a famous Robert A. Heinlein / “Notebooks of Lazarus Long” entry:

     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.

     For all my admiration of Heinlein’s fiction and his overall philosophy, I find the above statement ludicrous...even offensive. It evoked two responses from me:

  • “Can you do all that? Show me.”
  • “At what cost to you and those you love?”

     Alma Boykin attempted to square the circle:

     I think it comes down to the question of applying Heinlein’s idea to an individual or to society. For the individual, I firmly believe that having a broad range of knowledge and skills is beneficial, and possibly life saving if not for you than for someone else. Granted, the character in the book who is speaking is older than Methuselah, and has had time and the need to learn all those skills and more, but look at what Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts used to be required to learn before they aged out of the programs. If you have a wide knowledge base, and skill base, I think you are better prepared for when life knocks you sideways and you have to re-group and possibly head in a different career direction or life-path.

     However, is that best for the economy and society as a whole? There is indeed value in specialization, both at the level of assembly work and manufacture (as Smith argues most famously in the pin-makers passage), and at the level of regional markets. Why should London not have more pin makers, and Scotland more sheep-raisers? Scotland had land and a declining population of people, with lots and lots of sheep (1760s-70s), while London had lots and lots of people who could do piece work and thus earn a living at a relatively unskilled task. It was far more efficient to send wool to London in exchange for mass-made pins and other goods, and far cheaper for all parties (so long as sea-trade remained viable), than for the Scots to try to make pins for themselves and for Londoners to raise sheep in the public parks. Today, in the 2010s, we see similar specialization from places with lots of people and intellectual capital as compared to places with natural resources and physical capital. Or we did, until the ‘Internet and other related forces threw a joker into the deck.

     Miss Boykin makes some good points, as do some of her commenters. Yet there is little to no consideration of the costs attendant upon electing specialization versus attempting the Way of the Renaissance Man. Whereupon your humble Curmudgeon must leap to fill the gap.

     The most impressive individual I know personally shall be used to represent Generalism. I’ll call him Joe, mostly because that’s his name.

     Joe has been, at various points in his life, a soldier, an electrical engineer, an educator, a security specialist, a construction expert, a radio expert, a police officer and deputy sheriff, a husband and father, and more. He’s executed the duties of all those undertakings superbly. He and his wife live in a four-building compound he personally designed and built from the ground up. He maintains it almost entirely without assistance from specialists.

     My admiration for Joe is unbounded. I can’t think of anyone whose general knowledge and overall competence is greater. If there’s anyone walking the Earth today who’d have a fair chance of rebuilding civilization after a world-shaking calamity, Joe’s the man.

     But Joe is seventy years of age, and – to the extent possible for one who’s always available to help others with their problems – is retired from paid employment. He occasionally worries about money. He didn’t occupy any of his various niches long enough to accumulate a substantial “security stash.” Thus, he and his (also retired) wife must watch the pennies. Fortunately, they maintain a modest standard of living and have no debts whatsoever. Given the continuation of Social Security, they can make ends meet.

     Generalism, which can be supremely emotionally satisfying, has that cost.

     Now for a representative of Specialism to counterbalance Joe. Once again, I’ll make use of a specialist I know well: in this case, myself.

     Early in life I chose software engineering as my trade. I’ve dabbled in a couple of other fields, but software has always been the main string to my occupational bow. Moreover, as I aged I became even more narrowly specialized: from programming generally to real-time programming, to real-time systems programming, to real-time systems simulation programming. As there was always a need for my specialty, and relatively few specialists in my sector at any given time, I was able to command a high salary, a large part of which I managed to save.

     I can’t fix my own wiring or plumbing. I can’t do more with an automobile than change the oil and filter. I certainly can’t do architecture or command the skills required for construction. When things of that sort need doing, I must consult specialists who do them for money. But I have an ample pension, a large nest egg, and no debts. Barring the complete collapse of the dollar, I’m secure against financial hazards. I can indulge my and my wife’s pastimes. I can enjoy my retirement without worrying about the future. (I can also drink a lot of wine.)

     Whereas Joe’s cost is a degree of financial uncertainty, my cost is a high degree of dependency upon paid specialists.

     Most of us don’t consciously choose to become generalists or specialists. We tend to arrive at one of those poles by the implications of our priorities. He who opts to become a generalist will tend to place independence from outside assistance above other considerations. He who arrives at a specialty will tend to promote the financial advantages that accrue to a successful specialist. But each track has an associated cost that must be paid.

     Part of the price specialists such as myself must pay is a (hopefully innocent) envy of generalists like Joe. Words could never capture how ardently I wish I had his all-around competence. But it was not to be, precisely because of what I valued most.

     Societies don’t make conscious choices either. As I wrote in Freedom’s Scion:

     As they exited the tree-lined corridor from the commercial strip and turned onto the pathway to Morelon House, Althea halted her husband and turned to face him. “I can’t figure out what he’s planning, can you?”
     Martin gazed at her ruefully. “I’ve been thinking about that and nothing else, love. But I’m dead certain it’s nothing we’d enjoy.”
     “So what now?”
     He grimaced. “I don’t know. Postpone the trip, for sure. How to get our initial load up to Thule? Frankly, I don’t think we have much choice. Our clan had heavy-lift capacity at one point, didn’t it?”
     She nodded. “Yeah, but we sold the plane when Adam’s dad set up shop here. Charisse said she was happy to get rid of it. It made more sense to hire it out, so we wouldn’t have to maintain a plane and train pilots.”
     She glanced at the entrance to Morelon House. The old mansion looked as sturdy as ever. It presented an appearance of immutable strength to all who saw it. Yet it had begun to seem to her that the clan had undermined that strength in several ways, with several decisions. None of them had been fatal; indeed, when each was made, it had appeared to be the obvious choice. Yet in combination, they had rendered Clan Morelon massively dependent upon the wills and skills of a multitude of outsiders...persons who might not be as available or dependable as one would hope.
     —That’s the downside of the division of labor, Al.
     Yeah. I can see that, Grandpere. But how could we have avoided it?
     —By resisting all the temptations to specialize and to make use of specialists. By purchasing absolute self-sufficiency at the price of economic advantage. Which, incidentally, no clan or society known to history has ever managed to do.
     The incentives are too strong, aren’t they?
     —Judge for yourself, dear. Put yourself in Charisse’s place at the point when Jack Grenier moved into the area and started offering his services around. Would you have done as she did, knowing only what she did at the time?
     Probably. If there’s a lesson in this—
     —If there is, Al, no one has ever drawn it. The division of labor is the one and only path toward general prosperity. It can go to an incredible depth. A
frightening depth. And it is utterly reliant upon the character and good will of the specialists. Let one critical specialty be corrupted by political forces, or conceive of a grudge against some other group, or even decide that it can rape its customers without fear of reprisal, and the destruction spreads faster than anyone can act to check it.

     The choice may not be a conscious one for an individual, but it’s guaranteed not to be a conscious one for a free and prosperous society.


sykes.1 said...

Over the history of human evolution, from the early paleolithic to now, specialization has steadily replaced generalization. So, from a Darwinian viewpoint, specialization has greater fitness.

Mark said...

"For all my admiration of Heinlein’s fiction and his overall philosophy, I find the above statement ludicrous...even offensive."

You are completely right in stating that most of us don't have the time to acquire all of these skills -- and even if we did, most of us lack the natural talents needed to become proficient at all of them no matter how hard we try. I'll never write a sonnet or play an instrument well enough to please anyone else -- I lack whatever God-given talent makes someone a gifted musician. But my attempts have at least made me appreciate those people all the more.

But what if I slightly modify Heinlein's statement to read,

"A human being should be able to learn to change a diaper, plan an invasion,.... "

I have seen far too many people, many of whom are supremely skilled at one or two disciplines, completely stymied by the prospect of learning something out of their wheelhouse. Not only have they no clue where to start, they have no clue how to begin learning a new skill. On top of that, they are almost paralyzed with fear of having to learn something new.

A perfect example of this can be seen in Oregon, whose state legislature passed a law allowing for self-serve gas stations. The whining from Oregon's residents has been both amusing and frightening. To see (allegedly) grown people commenting:

“I don't even know HOW to pump gas and I am 62, native Oregonian.....I say NO THANKS! I don't want to smell like gasoline!”

“I've lived in this state all my life and I REFUSE to pump my own gas. I had to do it once in California while visiting my brother and almost died doing it. This a service only qualified people should perform. I will literally park at the pump and wait until someone pumps my gas. I can't even”

“Many people are not capable of knowing how to pump gas and the hazards of not doing it correctly. Besides I don't want to go to work smelling of gas when I get it on my hands or clothes. I agree Very bad idea.”


I like to consider myself a generalist who has learned enough specialized skills to avoid Joe's predicament, but can perform a wide range of tasks adequately -- perhaps not well enough to be paid for those efforts, but enough to give me that emotional satisfaction AND not have to depend on specialists for many projects around the home. Plus, I at least know enough about the others to know what's outside of my range of abilities.

My earliest education (that I can remember, at least) was my dad teaching my brothers and I not particular skills, but how to learn. I consider that the most valuable skill I have ever acquired.

"Societies don't make conscious choices, either."

Perhaps... perhaps not. There has been a deliberate push in the US over the last 40-50 years of primary and secondary education to direct students away from the trades and towards a 4 year college. As a result, we have a skilled labor force whose average member is approaching retirement age. And for those skilled laborers leaving the work force, there are fewer entering. We are becoming a highly specialized society -- with many of those specialties being completely unnecessary or even counter-productive to the continued functioning of a civilized society.

I fear that the very structured schooling geared only towards passing certain tests, or towards a single goal of college education (as well as being programmed with the right social justice ideas) will eventually produce a nation of Oregonians -- completely unglued by the prospect of having to do anything even slightly unfamiliar. And at the mercy of those who might withhold such trivial services (like pumping gas) that more and more people are increasingly loath to do.