Knowledge and Skill

by Lindy Davies

"It is not in skill, but in the knowledge which can be communicated from one to another, that the civilized man shows his superiority to the savage", wrote Henry George in The Science of Political Economy. The original Henry George School course in Economic Science asked students, "Which of the two (knowledge and skill) is more important in the development of civilization?" and answered: "Knowledge is the more important because it can be stored and transmitted in many efficient ways, thus enabling human society to continually advance. Skill, however, must be learned anew by each individual and can only be stored and transmitted by individuals."

In Henry George's day this seemed to be a no-brainer. Knowledge, applied in the form of labor-saving technology, made possible a vast increase in the productive power of labor. The power of human skills seemed quaint by comparison -- as shown by the example George chooses: that of an aboriginal boomerang-thrower. In the late nineteenth century, the importance and power of human knowledge to improve life (or to change it, anyway; many argued that all this labor-saving was no improvement) was thought to so far surpass the power of human skill that it seemed ludicrous to compare the two.

A hundred years later, however, society has reached the other side of the industrial revolution. As labor became ever more divided and specialized, "making a living" came to be further and further separated from any personal involvement on the part of those doing the work. Ever-more specialized knowledge came to be applied to everything people do, and to everything they come in contact with. For most people, making a living has become a matter of availing oneself of some sort of marketable knowledge, a "specialty" that would command better-than-average wages. Workers without special skills seek the protection of a trade union to protect their livelihoods from "scabs" who were willing to perform their undemanding jobs for lower pay. (The fragility of these arrangements is seen when improved information and communication technology allows jobs to be shipped overseas to lower-wage workers.)

For consumers, the march of specialization progressively eroded people's sense of involvement with, or control over, the things they use in day-to-day life. Goods and services were designed and produced by experts, and when they didn't work, experts had to be called in to repair them. The struggle to compete in increasingly specialized job markets left people no time for developing "skills" -- not until they retired, at least, when they could then take up a "hobby". It seemed that the triumph of knowledge over skill was complete.

However, it began to dawn on people, as civilization began to turn into what some call a "postmodern" or "postindustrial" society, that some important things had been given up along the seemingly straight path toward efficiency characterized by greater specialization and deeper knowledge. We were being told to "trust the experts" -- but how did we know that the "experts" knew what they were doing, or were telling us the truth? (The popularity of the "consumer advocacy" movement showed that many people were justifiably uneasy about taking big corporations at their word.)

And yet -- the benefits of advanced knowledge and specialization are undeniable. Without them, we could scarcely hope even to feed an expanding population. Must we simply endure the lack of choice, the feeling of being lost and disempowered, that seems to come with modern "production"? Is that simply the price of progress?

Surprisingly, our search for clear, consistent terms in the study of political economy can point a way out of this conundrum.

Knowledge, as we have seen, is very important to the development of civilization. With the advancement of knowledge, the "body economic" becomes vastly more efficient at producing wealth -- the stuff that satisfies human desires. That is what led Henry George to conclude that knowledge is more important than skill in the development of civilization.

But, what is the goal of production? Is it to produce "stuff" -- ever-greater piles of widgets? No. The goal of production is to satisfy human desires. A factory can churn out widgets all night and day, but if they do not satisfy human desires, those widgets are worthless. They are no longer wealth; they are merely a waste.

Those post-industrial yearnings we mentioned a moment ago -- for a sense of involvement, of empowerment, of choice and control -- are human desires, too. If we can afford it, we are willing to pay more for goods and services that satisfy such desires. For example, let's say that you want a coffee table. What are your options? You could collect the tools and materials, slowly learn the necessary skills, and make a table for yourself. You could commission a local carpenter to build a table to your specifications. You could go to a high-class furniture store and purchase a table crafted by expert woodworkers. Or, you could drive to the suburban Big-box and buy a table that had been made far away by exploited workers you will never meet, and sold in a store that sells for less.

Which of those options would be more attractive to you? Which would be more expensive, in terms of money, or in terms of time? Which would be more expensive in terms of the satisfaction foregone by having to look at that piece of crap in your living room? Each consumer might weigh the factors differently. Yet we do know that the less time and money consumers have to put toward acquiring a coffee table, the more they will be drawn to the Big-box. The more people go to the Big-box, the cheaper and more convenient Big-box merchandise will become. Their low prices will make it harder for skilled craftspeople to compete; their convenience will make it less attractive for consumers to do the work themselves. What an odd situation! Yet there we have it: in an economy where many people are trying to hang onto their middle-class status while real wages keep falling, there is a boom market for cheap consumer goods, made by exploited foreigners and sold in Big Boxes.

Now, make no mistake about it: a prodigious application of knowledge went into providing that coffee table. Just knowing how to build a table is the least of it! It had to be engineered to be produced for the lowest possible cost of material and labor, in some remote place, efficiently packaged and delivered just in time, at a price that beats the competition, yet yields a profit. We might not really like the products we buy at the Big-box, but we can't deny that they usually represent the best deal. Folks would very much like to buy a coffee table that could be delivered to their living room by means of a bit less (depersonalized, specialized) knowledge -- and a big more good, old-fashioned skill.

Oddly enough, the very labor-saving processes that result from the application of knowledge are the means by which society can ultimately be liberated from over-reliance on them. It is by utilizing the labor-saving powers of technology, the results of the application of knowledge, that we can -- potentially, at least -- free up enough time and exertion to explore using a greater application of skill to more richly satisfy our desires. (This principle is the key to various new scales that are being devised to measure genuine prosperity, as opposed to the Gross Domestic Product -- GDP -- which just adds up everything consumers spend money on, even if it's just fixing stuff that was smashed by vandals. Here's more on measuring progress.)

That is why I suspect that if Henry George were writing today, he would see knowledge as more important than skill only for seeing civilization through a certain stage of its development (just as skill was more important in an earlier, pretechnological stage). At a later stage, though, I think George would have discovered, like modern society is discovering today, that it is only through a healthy integration of knowledge and skill that society can use the benefits of technological progress without falling into the trap of dehumanization and alienation.