Misconceptions of Specialization


The amount of knowledge available in this world is practically infinite. At no point can someone become an expert in every possible field. To be an expert in “art” or “history” or “medicine” is still far too broad. Therefore specialization and the division of labor are needed.

The division of labor brings about an incredible advantage. Every second a surgeon spends learning French is time that could be spent becoming a better surgeon. Every second schools spend teaching their students to be well-rounded is time they could be spending specializing in a specific field. As individuals focus more on their niche in the world, they become better at what they do, and thus benefit society as a whole.

This can be taken to unfortunate extremes. As beneficial as specialization is, it causes problems in a world that is naturally interconnected. Physicians may practice medicine as a profession, but medicine is not the entirety of their life. Software engineers may use programming and math as a profession, but there is far more to their lives.

In the real world, subjects are intertwined. They relate to and affect one another.

The problems of this become much more evident in politics. As the old saying goes, “you may not care about politics, but politics cares about you.” In societies where the average citizen has the right to vote, everyone now plays a role in politics. If someone decides to cast their vote, surely they now have the responsibility to be informed about the political issues of their time. But where does this responsibility end? Politics has such a wide scope that to be even moderately informed about most of the issues would take far too much time for the average person.

The inevitable solution to this has been specialization within politics. But politics is a unique field, and specialization can often lead to echo chambers. To become interested in libertarianism is all well and good, but it means nothing if libertarian thinking is the only politics one is familiar with. Those familiar with libertarianism are likely familiar with the many libertarians that seem completely unable to have an opinion on anything beyond libertarianism.

And this certainly extends beyond libertarians. How many progressives are familiar with Murray Rothbard? How many conservatives are familiar with Kropotkin? The average political activist seems to have only a vague understanding of opposing political ideologies. And who can blame them? The entire reason for specialization is that to do otherwise is an impossible task.

So what does this mean? Specialization is necessary, but hyperspecialization can be a problem. As is the case in many situations, the Aristotelian mean is worth aiming for. But overall, what is most important is humility. Not knowing is fine when not claiming to know, but often in politics, those specialized in a specific area of politics are quarreling with people specialized in a completely different area. Why is there conflict, when there could be mutual benefit?

Humility removes the negatives of specialization. Conceding it is impossible to have all the answers, the humble political activist is constantly looking to expand his or her knowledge. Since this can be done much quicker by discussion and honest debate with political opponents, those that take time to really understand their opponents will overcome the problems of specialization.

But so long as people continue to view opposing ideologies as not worth reading or engaging with, as “racists” or “deniers” of some kind, political discourse will continue to be various groups of people with surface-level knowledge of one another, arguing with strawmen and vague generalizations.

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Nathan A. Kreider is author of the Misconceptions column for Being Libertarian, and has written for the Austrian Economics Center, the Foundation for Economic Education, and the Liberalists. He also occasionally publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website, nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]