The division of labor

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Various medieval Muslims discussed the division of labor and its benefits in the economic process. Among them are Kai Kavus, Ghazali, and the philosophers-ethicists Farabi, Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Miskaway, Nasir Tusi, and Davani. The discussions provided by these authors of the division of labor were much more sophisticated than those of the Greeks, and included division of labor within the household, within society (i.e., social), within the factory (manufacturing or technical), and among nations (Hosseini, 1998, section 4, p. 670). While it is believed that it was Thomas Hodgskin (1787-1869) who, in 1829, applied the division of labor to the household for the first time (see Hodgskin, 1966 [1829]), Hosseini has argued that this was discussed by the Persian Muslims Avicenna and Nasir Tusi several centuries earlier (Hosseini, 1998, p. 668). All of these writers have discussed the social division of labor; and Farabi, Ghazali, and Kai Kavus have applied it to the international arena. According to Farabi, each society is imperfect because they all lack all of the necessary resources. A perfect society can only be achieved when domestic, regional, and international trade all take place (Farabi, 1982, p. 25). The same view is expressed in Kai Kavus' Qabus Nameh: "To benefit the inhabitants of the west they import the wealth of the east and for those of the east the wealth of the west, and by doing so become the instruments of the world's civilization" (Kai Kavus, p. 156). Thus, like Adam Smith, these two medieval authors view international trade as a nonzero-sum game.

Although writing before the age of industry, medieval Muslim writers understood the application of the division of labor to a productive unit (such as a factory), and its usefulness, rather well. Recognizing that "there are a thousand things to be done before anyone can put a morsel of bread in his mouth," they recognized that it is useful to assign different tasks to different workers (Hosseini, 1998, p. 671). Reminiscent of Adam Smith's statement in The Wealth of Nations about the woolen coat being the joint product of a multitude of workers, Ghazali argues that "you should know that plants and animals cannot be eaten and digested as they are. Each needs some transformation, cleaning, mixing, and cooking, before consumption. For a bread, for example, first... Just imagine how many tasks are involved; and we mentioned only some. And, imagine the number of people performing these various tasks" (Ghazanfar and Islahi, 1990; quoted by Hosseini, 1998, p. 672).

For Ghazali and Tusi, as for Smith, exchange and division of labor are related (Hosseini, 1998, p. 672). Interestingly enough, Tusi, like Smith, argues that exchange and division of labor are the necessary consequences of the faculties of reason and speech. And both indicate that animals, such as dogs, do not exchange one bone for another (ibid., p. 672).

Smith's substantive economic analysis of the division of labor appears with the celebrated illustration of the productivity of the pin factory (Lowry, 1979, p. 73). This example is very similar to Ghazali's discussion in his Ihya al-Ulum al-Din that: "Even the small needle becomes useful only after passing through the hand of needle makers about twenty-five times, each time going through a different process" (Hosseini, 1998, p. 673, quoting Ghazanfar and Islahi's translation).

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