Study Guide

Pin Makers in The Wealth of Nations

By Adam Smith

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Pin Makers

Since this is a book about political philosophy and not a story, there aren't really characters in the normal sense. But there are a few groups of people who Adam Smith singles out for special discussion. That's because these folks help him make his general arguments about how things should work in the world… dagnabbit.

When Adam Smith first starts talking about the pin makers of England, it might seem like he's just picking any random class of people to talk about. But what he's actually doing is using these people as a symbol for how the division of labor can make workers super efficient.

When he first talks about pin making, Smith speaks as though one person were responsible for making a single pin from scratch (not exactly a dream job). In this instance, he writes that:

[A] workman not educated to this business […] could scarce, perhaps, with his most industry, make on pin in a day, and certainly could not make twenty. (1.1.3)

That's not much of a product for a full day's work. One measly pin.

But what happens if we take all the different skills involved in making a pin and divide those jobs among eighteen different people? In this case—boom:

[The] important business of making a pin is, in this manner, divided into about eighteen distinct operations. (1.1.3)

Now instead of one person making a pin, you have eighteen specialists who pass the pin along a sort of assembly line. And in this situation we find that these people "could, when they exerted themselves, make among them about twelve pounds of pins in a day" (1.1.3). That's a whole lot more pins for everyone to, um, enjoy.

What Smith is getting at here is that things become way more efficient once you get people to get really specialized and specific in what they do. And that's what modern progress is all about: efficiency and productivity. And the lesson we learn from the pin makers can be applied to making almost anything, from cars to cell phones to—sure—more pins.

Pin Makers in The Wealth of Nations Study Group

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