Discover more from David Friedman’s Substack
The Case Against
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, analyse a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.
— Robert Heinlein, Time Enough for Love
Specialization, the division of labor, makes possible the modern world, yet I find Heinlein’s ideal persuasive, would like to be that sort of person. I build our bookcases in my basement workshop. If a button comes off a shirt or a pants seam comes out or the knee of my jeans wears through, my wife fixes it. When I attended a catered dinner for forty or fifty people in the host’s home it felt wrong; when we host such events in our home the food is cooked by me and my family. At any reasonable per hour value for our time, it would be cheaper to hire the work out. But we don’t.
I buy flour from Costco in 25-pound bags, pay attention to prices in the grocery store, look at the right side of a restaurant menu as well as the left when deciding what to order. I could afford to fly business class but never do, at least when I am paying for it. Arguably all of this is irrational, patterns of behavior that made sense at an earlier and poorer stage of life retained through habit.
Subscribe for free to receive new posts.
Or perhaps not.
My income reaches me through an elaborate set of social, legal, and political mechanisms. Quite a lot of Americans who were comfortably well off in 1928 were no longer so in 1930. Quite a lot of French aristocrats in the late 18th century, Russian in the early 20th, experienced a more drastic change in circumstances. Short of market crash or revolution, there are multiple ways in which I could suddenly find my financial situation sharply altered, an expensive law suit or fraud at my broker’s. Money saved today would vanish along with everything else but the habits of thrift would not. Even if I am safe for my lifetime, my children extend my concern decades further and their behavior will be in part modeled on mine.
In the world as it now is, most things I want done can be done better and cheaper by someone else, hence it pays to specialize, earn money doing what I am good at, use that money to get other things through the market. That mechanism makes possible for modern-day people a standard of living enormously higher than a self-sufficient household could produce with its own labor.
But the world is an uncertain place. I have lived in a safe world for a very long time but past performance is no guarantee of future returns. In an uncertain future, there might come a time when I had no access to a market — perhaps not for a day, a month, or, in an extreme case of societal collapse, a lifetime. As long as I am alive and without serious injury I have my mind, my hands, my skills. There might come a time when I could no longer support myself by teaching, writing, speaking, perhaps a time when I would need to flee my country and find other ways of making a living. Safer not to be a one trick pony.
There are other issues as well. Being able to cook dinner for a lot of people is a skill that might be useful in the future, but that is not the main reason we do it. Inviting people into your home and feeding them has an emotional weight not explained by the value of the meal. It is the emotional image at the base of the concept of hospitality, in part because it is treating the guest as part of the family. The act is a better symbol, a more appropriate ceremony, if you cooked the food yourself.
Which brings me to …
For some years American law schools, including the one I taught at, faced serious budget problems due to declining enrollment. The obvious response was to try to cut expenditures. A particularly visible example in our case was abandoning the practice of serving catered food at faculty meetings and similar events. The amount saved was a tiny fraction of the budget but catered meals are a visible extravagance provided mostly for the benefit of the faculty — who, to a considerable extent, run the school. Abandoning them was a way of signaling staff members that they too should be willing to make do on less money, even if it made their job harder.
In the ideal loving family every member takes account of the welfare of the other members. Compare that to a bureaucratic organization, public or private, where the individual concern is with the paper trail, his ability to prove to the satisfaction of his superiors that he has done what he should do, whether or not it is true. Most organizations lie somewhere between those two extremes, depending in part on their size — it is easier to know and care about four people than four thousand. Most, however large and bureaucratic, make some attempt to take advantage of the family level feelings in order to motivate their members to act in the interest of the organization. When my school stopped serving lunch at faculty meetings I started baking and bringing chocolate chip cookies. Making food for each other is one of the things families do.
Someone on the law school faculty suggested organizing a free lunch for the students once a week. I found the argument offered, that some students were skimping on food to save money, unconvincing. Students who can afford a high-end law school are rarely poor enough to be at risk of malnutrition from poverty. If a few are, feeding everyone looks like a very inefficient solution.
Baking chocolate chip cookies for my faculty colleagues, even less likely to be poor, was not a very efficient way of seeing that they got well fed either — but that was not why I did it.
Providing students free food, donated, perhaps cooked, by staff and faculty, is an inefficient way of providing students with nutrition but it makes a good deal of sense if the objective, at a time when the school is facing problems, is to make the students, as well as the staff and faculty, feel more like a family. So I abandoned my opposition to the plan and started baking bread for the lunches.
There is practically nothing more familial than homemade bread.
Thanks for reading David Friedman’s Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.