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Abstraction is the flip side of Division of Labor. It’s been a long time since I’ve read Adam Smith’s pin factory example, so forgive me if I’m fuzzy on the details. Suppose that the operation consists of the wire stretcher upstream of me, myself on the point grinder, and the guy down below me puts the heads on, shooing away any dancing angels. Smith teaches us that by focusing on my job, on grinding pins, that me and my two fellows will make vastly more pins than we would have separately. And indeed our experience with society bears this out; I’ve never made a pin myself but I can purchase as many as I’d like at almost no cost.
So huzzah Division of Labor, right? That’s where Abstraction comes in. To focus on grinding pins I’ve got to stop worrying about cutting the wires and placing the heads. If I’m trying to cut my own wires then I’ve lost whatever advantage I’d gained from Division of Labor and now my pin output has plummeted. So I abstract away those concerns, contenting myself with the knowledge that there will always be a stretched wire for me to reach out and grab, and that the sharpened wires will always have heads placed. Because I’ve abstracted those away to the other guy’s concern I’ve necessarily given that other guy Power over me.
Power is the ability to use the details the other guy’s Abstracted away either for him or against him. If you’re doing your job honestly that’s Virtue (in this context.) If you’re using that Power for any other purpose that’s vice.
Suppose I’m grinding pins one work day, I reach my hand out for the next piece of stretched wire, and find there’s none there. “Hey, what gives!” I shout angrily at the guy upstream from me. Not only has he stopped making pins himself, but he’s also prevented me from making pins. He grudgingly wakes up, gets back to work, and all is well. A couple of minutes later the guy downstream wanders off. I stack up pin after pin at his workstation waiting for him to put heads on them, but he’s gone. Hours later I’ve ground as many wires as I like, I still haven’t produced any pins, and no money gets made. I’ve abstracted that part of the job to him, and he’s exerted his power in order to screw me over.
To get the benefits of Division of Labor I have to abstract away the details of all the other parts of the job. This gives power to the people dealing with those details; because I’m no longer paying attention to them they’re able to execute those details in whatever manner they choose, which may or may not screw me over.
Seems simple enough, right?
Let’s Apply this Model to What We See in the World Today
What happens when you abstract the job of ‘reporter’ away to a dedicated class? That class now has power, in that they have the ability to tell you what’s going on in the world. If they have virtue they execute the task faithfully. They give us the news. If they lack virtue they attempt to wield this power, influencing the thoughts and opinions of the rest of us by selectively reporting what they want us to hear. Abstraction, Power, Vice.
Another example, almost too obvious to mention; government. We abstract the question of who makes the rules to representatives, who further abstract it to regulators. That gives the regulators immense power in determining the rules by which the rest of us live our lives. Virtue consists in honest government, vice in the government we have.
We abstract away the raising of youth from mothers to teachers. This, according to the logic of the Division of Labor, allows great economic gains by taking the laborious rearing done by twenty Mrs. Mamas and replaces it with the moral instruction provided by one Miss Teacher, allowing the collected Mamas to go off and do high powered executive jobs. But by Abstracting the child-rearing away from Mama to Teacher we’ve given Teacher an enormous amount of Power. As the poet testifies ‘the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world’ and we’ve moved that power from the collective feminine half of society to the Teacher’s Union. Virtue in this case consists of the teachers who teach honestly, and Vice is seen in all the teachers who see their job as fighting the culture war.
Over and over the story goes. Lightning round!
The problem with Star Wars?
Abstraction: We’ve abstracted storytelling for the price of a movie theater ticket
Power: The ability to shape the collected narratives of a nation
Virtue: Telling a decent story
Vice: “The Force is female: SJW point-scoring.
Abstraction: The shareholders have abstracted the actual running of the company to the executives.
Power: The ability to direct a massive corporation.
Virtue: Using said corporation to make money for the shareholders who are trusting you.
Vice: Using said corporation to advance your reputation as a good person.
Abstraction: The common man’s 401k invests in mutual funds so he can get back to his job at the pin factory.
Power: You don’t need to own the investment capital of a nation’s working class in order to direct it
Virtue: Doing the right thing by those small investors
Vice: Directing those investment dollars in such a way as to advance your political goals.
What Can We Do About It?
Three things. The first is to be virtuous ourselves. Saint Augustine (the actual saint, not the Ricochet member, although possibly also the Ricochet member) said “Lord reform thy world, beginning with me.” All too many of us are all too willing to use our large-scale world-reforming activities to excuse our small-scale peccadilloes. The poster child for this is the global warming activist flying to conferences in a private jet, though an earlier age might point to the priest in ermine robes asking for alms from the peasant.
The second is to call them out on it. Look back at the pin factory example from up top. When the wire stretcher took a nap and prevented me from doing my job I mentioned it to him and he started doing the job again. Division of Labor presumes that the other jobs are being done competently. When they aren’t then there’s no merit in keeping on your station like an automaton; call them out on it and maybe they’ll do better.
The third is to stop relying on them. When the pinhead in a change of placing pin heads went over the hill I kept stacking unfinished pins at his station. Maybe I should have noticed he was gone and worked out some other arrangement with the wire stretcher guy. Maybe we pull in a fourth person to man that station. The point is, stop pretending that he’s still standing there and doing the job that he’s supposed to be doing.
There is a Fourth Thing Which I Don’t Advocate
Now that you can see the way that abstraction creates power you can seek out the power centers that the left has built and subvert them. The left is all about green energy, right? That means that the community organizers have abstracted away electricity generation to one type that they view as inherently moral (wind, solar, hamsters on wheels) versus another they view as inherently immoral (coal, nuclear, burning hamsters). If you own a windmill you may do so virtuously by providing power as best you can, or may engage in vice yourself by using the windmill to self-aggrandize at the expense of the leftists who might be willing to think you’re a good person because you’re green energy compliant.
You know who had that figured out? Harvey Weinstein. Do you recall, early on when he was getting the ax from the #MeToo movement, how he had a press conference where he said he was going to take out his anger on the NRA? Abstraction: Any nuanced thought on guns to a straight “guns are bad” position. Power: Free moral credit to any leftist wiling to take on the NRA. Vice: Claiming to fight the NRA as penance for being a weapons-grade creep. Thankfully the movement at that point wasn’t a protection racket rounding up leftist action.
Mostly though I don’t advocate taking this line because the end result is anarchy. If every abstraction produces power that can be exploited, and if every power so produced is exploited then it follows that it never benefits you to abstract anything. You never reap the benefits of Division of Labor if, having divided your labor, the other laborers do anything but. Consequently, we’re left with a society where no man benefits from dealing with his fellows. Taken to the extreme this becomes total anarchy. But don’t assume we get that far; at every step along the way, we get to a society where you can trust your neighbor less, where it’s less pleasant to live. We’ve already taken entirely too many steps along that road.Published in