Long before the word “economics” and “capitalism” were even invented, a Scottish social philosopher and political economist named Adam Smith describes how wages are determined by competition between workers and competition between employers – not necessarily competition between workers and employers.
Published on March 9th 1776, The Wealth of Nations, in part, describes the fundamental dynamics of labor markets at the dawn of the industrial revolution. In essence, when workers compete with each other for a limited number of jobs, wages fall. When employers compete with each other for a limited number of workers, wages increase.
He also described what happens when workers decide not to compete with each other; and instead form unions. Unions effectively distort the market toward increased wages. Likewise, Adam Smith describes what happens when employers decide not to compete with other employers (tacitly or implicitly) for workers. This activity also distorts the market, except, towards decreased wages.
Why are we fighting again?
Adam Smith does not mention specifically that these mutual distortions manifests in workers and employers competing with each other in lieu of competing with themselves. Since the 1780’s, vast resources have been committed to preserving the fight without really questioning why the fight needs to exist in the first place.
A fish has no word for water
One of the ways that corporations form tacit collusion is with arcade job descriptions and skill codes. When a company or an industry develops its own language, this makes it very difficult for outsiders to enter and insiders to leave. Yet, this is precisely what needs to happen in order for the diffusion of innovation to flow across the entire economic spectrum.
A medical instrument manufacturer and an aerospace company and a sporting equipment company would have very different ways of describing the environment that they operate in. However, an engineer designing a carbon fiber composite aircraft structure would be equally adept at designing a composite athletic prosthetics. Yet today, engineers from multiple industries are rarely interchanged. In fact, interchange has been largely suppressed.
If workers were able to cross industries they would benefit from increasing employment options and the ability to shift rapidly with economic cycles. In Adam Smith’s analysis, this would drive wages up. On the other hand, employers would also have a greater pool of qualified workers to hire, which in Mr. Smith’s analysis would drive wages down. Both would benefit from increased exchange of knowledge, access to innovation, transfer of wisdom, and diversification of risk.
If workers and employers could produce the exact same labor relations outcome by collaborating among themselves, there would be no need for the massive infrastructure of social division and political rhetoric that we have invested in preserving the fight.
Public Knowledge Asset Inventory
The Internet has made collaboration and interchange vastly more efficient than competing yet our economic system remains in the 1780’s. We are watching a public knowledge asset inventory forming outside the construct of corporations. We are watching corporations begin to index their skill codes to the public knowledge inventory rather than their internal ontologies.
We now need to recognize the importance in which we formulate this public asset. If we do it right, astonishing value will be released. If we do not, the invisible hand of capitalism will remain, well, invisible. As such, even a distorted image would be an improvement.