One feature of nearly every aspect of economic life is that individuals, businesses and countries engage in specialization. Specialization is when we concentrate on a particular product or task. Surplus products can then be exchanged and traded with the potential for gains in welfare for all parties.
- Benefits from Specialization
By concentrating on what people and businesses do best rather than relying on self sufficiency:
Higher output: Total output of goods and services is raised and quality can be improved. A higher output at lower costs means more wants and needs might be satisfied with a given amount of scarce resources.
Variety; Consumers have improved access to a greater variety of higher quality products i.e. they have more and better choice both from their own economy and from the production of other countries
A bigger market: specialization and international trade increase the size of the market offering opportunities for economies of scale (a fall in long run costs per unit of output)
Competition and lower prices: Increased competition for domestic producers acts as an incentive to minimize costs and innovate to remain competitive. Competition helps to keep prices down and maintains low inflation
- The Division of Labour
The division of labour is a particular type of specialisation where the production of a good is broken up into many separate tasks each performed by one person or by a small group of people. The division of labour raises output per person, thereby reducing costs per unit because lower skilled workers are easily trained and quickly become proficient through constant repetition of a task – ‘practice makes perfect’ – or “learning by doing”. Low unit costs allow firms to remain competitive in the markets in which they operate.
- Limitations of Division of Labour
There are limits and downsides to the breaking down of production into many small tasks. Perhaps the greatest downside is that the division of labour may eventually reduce efficiency and increase unit costs because unrewarding, repetitive work lowers worker motivation and productivity. Workers begin to take less pride in their work and quality suffers, the result may be a problem of diseconomies of scale.
The division of labour also runs the risk that if one machine breaks down then the entire factory stops. Some workers receive a narrow training and may not be able to find alternative jobs if they find themselves out of work (they may suffer structural unemployment). Another disadvantage is that mass-produced standardized goods tend to lack variety.
- The concept of comparative advantage
First introduced by David Ricardo in 1817, comparative advantage exists when a country has a ‘margin of superiority’ in the production of a good or service i.e. where the marginal cost of production is lower.
Countries will usually specialize in and then export products, which use intensively the factors inputs, which they are most abundantly endowed. If each country specializes in those goods and services where they have an advantage, then total output can be increased leading to an improvement in allocative efficiency and economic welfare. Put another way, trade allows each country to specialize in the production of those products that it can produce most efficiently (i.e. those where it has a comparative advantage).
This is true even if one nation has an absolute advantage over another country. So for example the Canadian economy which is rich in low cost land is able to exploit this by specializing in agricultural production. The dynamic Asian economies including China have focused their resources in exporting low-cost manufactured goods which take advantage of much lower unit labour costs.
In highly developed countries, the comparative advantage is shifting towards specializing in producing and exporting high-value and high-technology manufactured goods and high-knowledge services.
Production advantage, the PPF and specialisation
Two countries are producing two products (X and Y). With a given amount of resources,
|Output of X||Output of Y|
In this example, country B has an absolute advantage in both products. Absolute advantage occurs when a country or region can create more of a product with the same factor inputs.
But although country A has an absolute disadvantage, in fact it has a comparative advantage in the production of good X. It is 9/10ths as efficient at producing good X but it is only 3/5ths as efficient at producing good Y.
Comparative advantage exists when a country has lower opportunity cost, ie, it gives up less of one product to obtain more of another product. Economists argue countries benefit if they specialize in a product in which they have a comparative advantage and trade.
In our example above, for country A, every extra unit of good Y produced involves an opportunity cost of 2 unit of good X. Whereas for country B, an additional unit of good Y involves a sacrifice of only 4.3 units of good X.
There are gains to be had from country A specializing in the supply of good X and country B allocating more of their resources into the production of good Y.
Another worked example of comparative advantage
In this second example, we will work through an example of comparative advantage and also show some of the possible benefits that might flow from specialization and trade between two countries.
Consider two countries producing two products – digital cameras and vacuum cleaners. With the same factor resources evenly allocated by each country to the production of both goods, the production possibilities are as shown in the table below.
|Pre-specialization||Digital Cameras||Vacuum Cleaners|
Working out the comparative advantage
To identify which country should specialise in a particular product we need to analyse the internal opportunity costs for each country. For example, were the UK to shift more resources into higher output of vacuum cleaners, the opportunity cost of each vacuum cleaner is one digital television. For the United States the same decision has an opportunity cost of 2.4 digital cameras. Therefore, the UK has a comparative advantage in vacuum cleaners.
If the UK chose to reallocate resources to digital cameras the opportunity cost of one extra camera is still one vacuum cleaner. But for the United States the opportunity cost is only 5/12ths of a vacuum cleaner. Thus the United States has a comparative advantage in producing digital cameras because its opportunity cost is lowest.
Output after Specialization
|Digital Cameras||Vacuum Cleaners|
|UK||0 (-600)||1200 (+600)|
|United States||3360 (+960)||600 (-400)|
- The UK specializes totally in producing vacuum cleaners – doubling its output to 1200
- The United States partly specializes in digital cameras increasing output by 960 having given up 400 units of vacuum cleaners
- As a result of specialization according to the principle of comparative advantage, output of both products has increased – representing a gain in economic welfare.
For mutually beneficial trade to take place, the two nations have to agree an acceptable rate of exchange of one product for another.
There are gains from trade between the two countries. If the two countries trade at a rate of exchange of 2 digital cameras for one vacuum cleaner, the post-trade position will be as follows:
- The UK exports 420 vacuum cleaners to the USA and receives 840 digital cameras
- The USA exports 840 digital cameras and imports 420 vacuum cleaners
Post trade output / consumption
|Digital Cameras||Vacuum Cleaners|
Compared with the pre-specialization output levels, consumers in both countries now have an increased supply of both goods to choose from.
We have seen in this chapter how specialization and trade based on the idea of comparative advantage can lead to an improvement in economic welfare.