Ants v. Adam Smith

The long knives are sure out for capitalism these days. From a financial system in crisis to the inexplicable idiocy of CEOs, the opponents of our gonzo market have much to celebrate.

As for myself, I'm a fan of the free market. It's good for me, good for liberty, and, provided we make the appropriate public interventions to ensure nobody is screwed over, the least onerous of the available options. Still, with the system teetering on the brink of meltdown, it's as good a time as any to take a look at some of its most cherished assumptions.

Take this study from the University of Arizona. It argues that specialization does not improve individual productivity in any colonies. Fans of Adam Smith will recall that specialization is a pretty important part of his theory of capitalism. He argued, in his iconic pin factory example, that workers who focus on a particular task are more productive than generalists. Ants don't agree. Said researcher Anna Dornhaus:

My results indicate that at least in this species, a task is not primarily performed by individuals that are especially adapted to it (by whatever mechanism). This result implies that if social insects are collectively successful, this is not obviously for the reason that they employ specialized workers who perform better individually.

Something to think about. Would we be more economically effective if we had a lot of skills, as opposed to a narrow job description? Specialization is the foundation of modern mass manufacturing, which is currently in a sorry state. So would greater generalization help us get the economy moving again?

Probably not on its own, since our economy is considerably more complex than an Ant hill. But as we move into an uncertain future, we can't really afford to overlook anything. Even the humble ant.

Photo courtesy of PHGCOM.