Confessions of a Tool Fool

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I’m an economist, not a tool guy.  Sure, I own tools—screwdriver, hammer, and pliers—but using them has always been problematic, as my gifts lie in other areas.  I can write, publish, teach, and sing.  My interpersonal skills have always served me well as I enjoy meeting and interacting with others, especially in debate when the mutual interest among participants is the development of right reason.  I am very thankful to have been able to work almost all of these talents into a career.

But I am not a tool guy.

This used to be a point of consternation for me and my brother who felt shortchanged by our father who, whatever his strengths, never bothered to share with us the basics of auto mechanics, home repair, or construction.   For a very long time, although we eventually mastered the use of hammers (those go with the nails) and screwdrivers (did you know there are flatheads and Phillips styles?), the tool arena was shunt off from us.

Although we knew it existed, it was not for us, and as a result, we often had the experience of walking through a Lowe’s or Home Depot feeling like lesser men while witnessing better men—often wearing Wrangler’s jeans and tobacco tins—carting large, mysterious tools to the registers while we picked up, say, an extra flashlight or rake.

One time this past fall, when buying some $2.99 nails—they are useful for hanging pictures and mixing drinks—a largish man with self-cropped hair, a thick brown beard that broke at his lower eye lashes, and forearms the size of my biceps, appeared in the checkout line behind me, free-lifting something that, if I had to guess, was the engine to a Mack truck.  But I wasn’t sure, so drawing on my interpersonal, small-talk skills, I asked him (in an involuntarily squeaky voice):

“So, what’s that?”

He grunted a response that wasn’t a grunt but was nonetheless incomprehensible given my shortcomings in speaking RealMan-lish.  So I nodded understandingly like someone who forgot he had multiple Mack truck engines crammed under his workbench, wiped my hand on my corduroys as if it had literal dirt on it, and checked out.

But not with shame.  While not being conversant in Toolology used to bother me, I now see it as a strength both for myself and society in general.  The fact that I don’t exactly get the glories of the O2 sensor socket simply means I have spent my time developing other skills more natural to me.  The resulting division of labor into more and more specialized units has not just reaped personal benefits.  It is also a central characteristic of the Industrial Revolution and the astounding rates of economic output we still witness today.

For most of us, being a jack of all trades means we are not terribly productive in any of them, but when we are a jack of one or few trades, two important benefits emerge.  First, we become more productive as skills and technologies improve over time.  This means that as more people specialize in the production of many different goods and services, society itself becomes richer as more output is produced in the aggregate than would have resulted if each worker attempted to produce everything he or she needed.

Second, when labor is divided, opportunities for self-sufficiency become mass-produced as individuals hone narrow skills into jobs that allow them to provide for themselves and their families.  These benefits are much more than material.  When we specialize in production and sell the surplus of what we produce, we indirectly trade our surplus for the surplus of others specializing in other forms of labor.

On this point, as on so many, Murray Rothbard wrote cogently over 50 years ago:

As the division of labor expands, there are more and more varieties of skilled occupations that [a worker] can engage in, instead of having to be content with only the most primitive skills.  And in the free society he is free to try these tasks, free to move into whatever area he likes best.  …  Just as free capitalism enormously expanded the amount and variety of consumers’ goods and services available to mankind, so it vastly expanded the number and variety of jobs to be done and the skills that people can develop.

The resulting interdependencies between business owners and business employees, computer techs and tomato farmers, tool guys and stockbrokers, and countless others, form the basis for civilization itself.  This is why policies that hinder the development and expansion of the specialization and division of labor—think of minimum wage laws that reward capital over labor or regulatory burdens that favor large corporations over small business—have the effect of disconnecting people and de-civilizing society in general.

Yes, I actually think of these ideas every time I visit a hardware store, and instead of feeling shame when interacting with men who recognized long ago there is actually no such thing as a flux capacitor (who knew?!), I am instead grateful for how their efforts improve my quality of life.  One hopes they comprehend how my and countless other people’s efforts enrich theirs.

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