If you were a European of six or seven hundred years ago, your personal possessions would have been few, mostly limited to the things you or your family members made for yourselves. If you were more prosperous or lucky, you might own a few things that were made by master craftsmen, members of the guilds.
In the infancy of the guild system there were a few scores of guilds; at its zenith the guilds had become increasingly specialized and there were hundreds of them. Not only were there guilds for weaving, metal-working, barrel-making, and so on, but there were distinct guilds for weaving particular kinds of cloth, making certain sorts of objects from metal. Beginners learned the craft from master craftsmen to whom they were apprenticed, tied in a kind of indentured servitude. It took as long as seven years before an apprentice learned the rudiments of a craft and became a journeyman, able to ply the craft on his own, and another seven years before the journeyman became a master, empowered to have apprentices of his own (where the real money was).
It has been suggested that the guilds produced quality control. This is nonsense. There are written records documenting the prevailing fees that a prospective apprentice was to pay a master: four livres plus four years of service, three livres plus five years of service, or no up-front fee but the full seven years of service. Masters were rarely disciplined by their guilds. The guilds were primarily devices for extracting rents. Patents were exploited to prevent upstart competition, prices were raised beyond what they otherwise would have been.
As late as the 18th century only the wealthy could afford personal dishes and cutlery. Josiah Wedgwood was a visionary: he envisioned a world in which every person might eat from his or her own dish, a revolution in sanitation. Employing methods of mechanization, assembly lines, and mass production he turned that vision into a great fortune and contributed a good part of that fortune to the cause of opposition to slavery. It’s hard to say which was his greater accomplishment. He was, by the way, the grandfather of Charles Darwin.
Mechanization was the downfall of the guilds. The guildmasters were very skilled craftsmen, a highly selective group, and their products were beautiful. However, their methods limited production and, consequently, raised the price so that only the well-to-do could afford them and they targeted their products towards the well-to-do. Machine looms could produce more cloth than even the most skilled weaver and they could be operated by people with substantially less skill and ability than the master weavers possessed. The meticulous craftsmanship of the masters was lost but ordinary people could now afford clothes, dishes, cutlery, possessions.
Over the weekend David Leonhardt, writing at the New York Times, argues for more higher education on the grounds that higher wages follow increased education, even for restaurant cashiers or other jobs that wouldn’t seem to require a college educatoin. I think there are other prospective explanations for the phenomenon cited including deferred income and college degrees as signalling mechanisms.
However, if higher education does, indeed, increase wages, wouldn’t it make sense to drag higher education into the 21st century, dramatically reduce its cost via automation, improve its quality through standardization, and make it more effective by using methods that have empirical support? The retort to this typically takes the lines that higher education is intrinsically labor intensive, that it takes years of study and substantial investment for a college professor to achieve mastery of his field, and that higher education will always be expensive.
These are precisely the arguments made by the guilds centuries ago. Whenever I hear a skilled craftsman arguing that his or her field is intrinsically labor intensive, requires years (or decades) of study, individuals of great ability, and hundreds of thousands of dollars of investment to pursue in defense of the artisanal approach being used in the field, I recall the guilds. Scarcity may be by design. If we had believed the weaver’s guild, each of us might have a single pair of trousers, shirt, and suit of underwear. Instead, clothing is available for a pittance, in enormous variety, and at a quality that the masters of years gone by would have been hard put to achieve.