Adam Smith and "The Office"

with Dylan DelliSanti

June 17, 2019

Once upon a time (in fact, for most of the time that humans have been on earth), humans lived in tight-knit bands among their kin groups. Such bands were generally no larger than fifty people. Men hunted after game; women foraged for food and tended to the children. It was a time of both “astonishing adventure” and “profound indolence.”[1] All the necessaries of life were “afforded from love, from gratitude, from friendship, and esteem,” and “all the different members of it [were] bound together by the agreeable bands of love and affection.”[2] From the distant view we have of hunter-gatherer society, it can appear an idyllic time in human history.

It can look particularly idyllic in contrast to our modern age. We live in nuclear families and might only see distant relatives once a year or so. We no longer rely on a small kin-group for what we want in life. Instead, we wake up every morning, go to an office filled with people we are not related to and then go to grocery stores and shopping malls where we seek to engage the self-interest of total strangers in order to get what we want. Our society is held together “by a mercenary exchange of good offices according to an agreed valuation,” as Adam Smith would describe it.[3]

Television has long allowed us to reflect on the comic awkwardness of the modern working world. One of the best was named, unassumingly, The Office.[4] For those uninitiated: The Office revolved around the inner-workings of a small paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Steve Carell starred as the boss whose unrelenting desire to be loved by his employees, combined with his poor social skills, frequently led to painfully awkward situations. Beyond Carell’s hijinks, the show also involved several romantic sub-plots, power struggles, and, in general, stories of friendship and belonging. Indeed, far from presenting a desolate wasteland where white-collar employees worked their lives away, The Office showed that the modern workplace could be lively and fulfilling.

Adam Smith, though he could not possibly have foreseen the invention of the “workplace sitcom,” did foresee that modern, commercial workplaces could give occasion to friendship – even something like family. Smith recognized that in poorer societies, like the hunter-gatherer bands of yore, “all the different branches of the same family commonly chuse to live in the neighbourhood of one another,” but, as nations grew wealthier, “the descendants of the same family, having no such motive for keeping together, naturally separate and disperse…”[5].
Smith recognized that nostalgic readers of his time might bemoan this change to a less intimate society. Indeed, many today tend to view commercial society as lonely. But Smith saw that intimate bonds of affection could still persist in a world of commerce:
 Among well-disposed people the necessity or conveniency of mutual accommodation very frequently produces a friendship not unlike that which takes place among those who are born to live in the same family. Colleagues in office, partners in trade, call one another brothers, and frequently feel towards one another as if they really were so. Their good agreement is an advantage to all; and, if they are tolerably reasonable people, they are naturally disposed to agree. We expect that they should do so; and their disagreement is a sort of a small scandal.[6]

Smith recognized that affection was built on habituation, not blood. People who frequently do business with one another will also frequently have occasion to learn about each other. Although not all commercial relationships become friendships, such relationships at least set the stage for friendship.
Take the relationship of Jim and Dwight from The Office. In season one, it was adversarial. Dwight would overstep the bounds of propriety; Jim would bring him back to reality through some prank. With time, however, they grew to be friends.  Dwight steadily became more normal, and Jim learned to empathize with his socially stunted co-worker.
Of course, one might reasonably object that the hunter-gatherer band was still a far more intimate setting than the modern office. This objection is correct. But what modern humans have lost in intimacy, we’ve gained in autonomy. If someone is unhappy in their current work-situation, then there’s at least a good chance they can get a new job within a year’s time. However, if someone became unhappy with their hunter-gatherer band, they would have difficulty finding acceptance in another.
The lesson we can glean from Adam Smith and our modern workplace sitcom is that friendship can develop in any situation where habitual interactions occur. We’ll never return to the romanticized age of the hunter-gatherer tribe, but we probably wouldn’t want to either.

Some Possible Questions for Discussion
1.  Does the development of friendships in the modern workplace serve as a partial antidote to the deadening effect of the division of labor?
2.  Are there television shows you can think of that argue against the workplace as a creator of friendships?
3.  Do you think it is correct to characterize hunter-gatherer kin group bands as held together by affection rather than by necessity? Why?

[1] Smith, EPS, p. 251
[2] TMS, p. 85
[3] TMS, p. 86
[4] I’ll be referring to the American version, which I thought was obviously superior. Television is not any funnier just because the actors have British accents.
[5] TMS, p. 223
[6] TMS, p. 223-224
Jon Murphy

Good stuff (as always) Dylan.

I think work-friendships and those very special ones that develop into work-spouses (work-friends, typically of the opposite gender you are extremely close with) do deaden Smith's fears about the division of labor. Socialization naturally expands our interests as we all learn about the different ways people view the world.

Although, I suppose this assumes a division of labor where human interaction is possible, no? On a manufacturing line where day-in and day-out you are doing a repetitive task, does that allow much socialization? Offices are designed, in part, to encourage socialization. Assembly lines are not. Does that matter here?