Not too many years ago, the United States was a primarily agricultural nation: in fact, 64% of 1850 U.S. labor force participants worked on or owned a farm. The massive shift from farmhouse to apartment building and dirt road to interstate is a well-documented one, and perhaps the most major shift in America’s economy.
In 1850 GDP per capita averaged around $2,303 (in 2009 dollars), compared to 2012’s GDP per capita at a whopping $49,226 dollars (also in 2009 dollars). Despite a sluggish economy and a flailing system of international trade, this is a massive amount compared to the flimsy 1850 total.
Although statistics and GDP measures are never accurate, beyond reasonable doubt the number reveals a very obvious and a very remarkable trend, benefiting mankind and showing the signs of a maturing, developed economy: specialization of labor.
In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith first pointed out that a crowd of pin-makers, each executing just one of the many functions involved in creating an 18th-century pin, would make an exponentially larger amount of pins than one worker, who Smith hypothesized would only succeed in making twenty or thirty every day.
This labor specialization philosophy led to highly efficient assembly lines and eventually to the early 20th century automobile industry’s success in mass-producing large, complex vehicles. Smith’s 1776 observation was not revolutionary but was still nothing short of insightful; considered the “father of capitalism,” Smith realized over 130 years ahead of time that specialization of labor paired with free markets would lead to extraordinary success. In assembly line entry-level jobs specialized functions are—for example—tightening a screw. In a broader sense specialization of labor means different sectors of the economy manned by very specifically trained people.
Modern agriculture, aided by constantly improving farm equipment, science, and seeds, is a far cry from the grueling autarky of 1850s. Struggling to stay afloat themselves, farmers rarely produced much excess food to sell to other members of the community. (Even then, technology, transportation, and communication were not sufficient to distribute the food where it was in demand.)
Rather than employing their time in education or recreation, families would spend from sunrise to sunset slaving away at farm chores—perhaps, some would say, this resulted in healthier, stronger children. It did not: life expectancy was around 35-38 years, and many children died before reaching the age of 12. The rural agricultural autarky allows for little to no medical progress. In survival situations, all science regresses while a single man or a single family attempts to eke out a meager living in the wild. The 1850s was nowhere near this stark an existence, but the point stands: life is hard when one is separated from market forces.
While one man is an excellent builder and the other is a skilled cook, in an autarkic situation the first man would be forced to cook rather than continue in his area of expertise, building. The second man would be forced to build rather than cook, meaning that both of them spend excess amounts of time on mediocre (maybe even inferior) products and services that would be best split between them. The 19th century was an era of discovery, and likely the most important of all advances in that hundred-year span was the widespread introduction of labor specialization, a convenient, beneficial, and life-changing free market necessity improved by agricultural technology. This allowed farmers talented in a particular trade to pursue other interests; they accepted the opportunity.
By 1860, farmers made up 58% of the population; by 1870, 53%; by 1880, 49%; and in 1930, a mere 21%. Currently farmers make up less than 2% of the population in the United States.
The dramatic transformation is no mystery.
Specialization of labor is the reason that the average American was no longer forced with the question of survival at every turn; it was the reason that the economy blossomed into an even more diverse and thriving market; it was the reason that while the number of farmers decreased, burgeoning scientific knowledge allowed fewer farmers to feed hundreds, and even thousands, more people.
Farmers everywhere were offered the benefits of specializations of labor: soil scientists, irrigation experts, livestock specialists, veterinary medicine, railroads and later automobile transportation services—as well as better weather prediction capabilities—began combining to form a new world that had never been explored before.
Family farms, although quaint and maybe nostalgic, still somewhat prevalent and quite wonderful, are not like they used to be. Even “family farms” do not operate on their knowledge and their experience alone; specialists from every field combine in different ways, in a seamless system of free market harmony (revision: free market harmony stifled by the FDA) that brings food from all over the nation and around the world to your grocery store.