Once the Servant, Now the Master

William Morris gave a marvellous, if disparaging, description of the division of labour in commerce:1

"the division of labour, once the servant, and now the master of competitive commerce, itself once the servant, and now the master of civilization"

This profound insight by Morris encourages us to ask what other economic innovations, besides the division of labour, would also fit the description: "once the servant, and now the master"?  Indeed, could we say of innovation itself that, in some circumstances, it is "once the servant, and now the master" ?

A similar thought was expressed by Thorstein Veblen, a little later than Morris.2  Veblen took the old proverb, "Necessity is the mother of invention" and turned this on its head, thus: "Invention is the mother of necessity".

One of my main interests prior to retirement was to consider the question: is the "once the servant, now the master" phenomenon pervasive in advanced economies?  If it is, this is a curious, and potentially serious pathology.  I regret I have not yet been able to come to any firm conclusion.  I hope someone will pick up this particular 'baton'.


1 William Morris, "Making the Best of It: Paper Read Before the Trades' Guild of Learning and the Birmingham Society of Artists" (1879), in The Collected Works of William Morris, Vol. 22, New York: Russell and Russell (1966, p.82)

2 Thorstein Veblen, The Instinct of Workmanship and the State of the Industrial Arts, New York: Macmillan (1914, p. 315)