Up From Barbarism

The most basic economic concepts of society and the division of labor, systematically presented through story.


Part 4 of The Action Odyssey. Click here for part 3.

Odysseus traded with Polyphemus day after day. Each night he thought, “Well, that was profitable. But I bet tomorrow, he won’t have any good deals, and then I’ll destroy him.”

But each day, Polyphemus seemed to have better and better bargains for him.

One day, while Odysseus was chopping wood, Athena appeared before him.

“Why are you chopping wood?”

“Because I need to build a new boat for fishing.”

“Why don’t you go hunt rabbits instead?”

“Because I can’t make a boat out of rabbits!” Odysseus was amazed that he had to explain this to a goddess of wisdom.

“Have you ever traded rabbits for wood with Polyphemus?”

“Yes, he seems to love rabbit meat. He gave me a whole cubit for one rabbit.”

“Is one cubit enough to build a boat?”

“Yes, that’s exactly how much I need.”

How long does it take you to chop one cubit of wood?”

“Ten hours.”

“How long does it take you to shoot one rabbit?”

“Maybe four hours.”

“So, let me ask you again, to build your boat, why don’t you go hunt rabbits?”

“Ohhhh…”

Odysseus spent four hours hunting, shot a rabbit, traded it for one cubit of wood with Polyphemus, and then built his boat. From that point forward, Odysseus stopped chopping wood, and focused on producing other things instead.

Another day, while Odysseus was out hunting, Athena appeared to him again.

“Why does Polyphemus always seem to have so much lumber that he’s willing to trade it away to you?”

“Because Polyphemus is bigger than me, so he can knock down trees faster.”

“Yes, that is called an absolute advantage.”

“While I’m a better shot, so I can hunt rabbits faster than him.”

“Are you so sure about that? Follow me.”

Athena led Odysseus to a ledge overlooking a gulch. He looked down and saw Polyphemus walking around, leaning on trees and knocking them over.

“He doesn’t even need to use an axe!” remarked Odysseus.

“Watch this,” Athena said, and magically created the illusion of a rabbit, which hopped down into the gulch. Without even looking, Polyphemus took out a knife, and flung it behind his back. The knife went straight through the rabbit illusion and stuck into the ground.

“He’s a better hunter than I am too? Then why does he even need me? Why doesn’t he just hunt his own rabbits? He has the hunting advantage too!”

“In hunting he has the absolute advantage, but you have the comparative advantage.”

“Comparative advantage?”

“He is twice as fast at hunting than you are, but he’s ten times as fast at wood gathering than you. It usually takes him two hours to kill a rabbit, which is faster than you. But it only takes him one hour to gather one cubit, which he can then trade with you for one rabbit. So gathering wood is still a faster way of getting rabbits than hunting.”

“Well he’ll be gathering wood in Hades in a minute,” Odysseus said as he lifted his bow, and drew an arrow back.

“Are you sure you want to do that?”

“Of course, this is my chance!”

“Don’t you need him for his lumber?”

“I can have all his lumber once he’s dead.”

“All the lumber he’s gathered so far. And that will last you a few weeks. But what about after that? If you have to go back to having to spend ten hours of chopping to get a cubit of wood instead of only four hours hunting, will you be able to get enough firewood to get you through winter? And what about building a seaworthy boat to get back home?”

“Home?” Odysseus’s rage-filled eyes melted as he thought of his family who he hadn’t seen in ten years: his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus.

Odysseus lowered his bow.

“Congratulations.”

“For what?”

“You are no longer a barbarian.”

“I thought he was the barbarian!”

“You both were. But now you have both graduated from barbarism to civilization.”

“What do you mean?”

“At the beginning you each worked alone for yourself alone. That is called isolated labor. Do you remember what that was like?”

“Yes, I was not very productive. And so I was really poor.”

“Poor and desperate. And how did you try to make things better for yourself?”

“Through war. By trying to kill Polyphemus and take his supplies.”

“That is barbarism: isolation, poverty, and war.”

“Oh.”

“But after you started trading with each other, then you divided work between yourselves. You focused on hunting and he focused on wood-gathering. Dividing work like that is called division of labor. And was that more productive?”

“Yes, because we each specialized in our comparative advantage. Compared to before, I feel like a rich man these days.”

“And now when you have the chance to kill him, you stay your hand.”

“Yes, because I…. I…”

“Go ahead, you can say it.”

“I need him.” Odysseus is lost in thought for a moment. But then he shakes it off. “But not like some sensitive sissy! I just need to keep trading with him. That doesn’t mean I care about him!”

“Perhaps not. But I must warn you, that may come later. And that, my dear Odysseus is civilization: the division of labor, wealth, peace, and even…”

“Don’t say it!”

“…friendship.”

“Aarggh!”

Polyphemus heard Odysseus cry out, looked up and saw him. The cyclops drew a knife and took aim. Odysseus gasped. But then Polyphemus stopped himself, stood still for a moment, and put away his knife. The monster nodded at the warrior, and the warrior nodded at the monster. And they both went back to work.

Continued in part 5.