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Day 24: Against Efficiency

This month I have found myself thinking about the ways that concepts from commercial life have come to pervade our thinking about ethical and political life to our detriment.  Debt economics was one way.  Efficiency is another.

In Republic II, Plato has Socrates justify having each person in the city do one task with recourse to efficiency.  What would be more efficient?  Accepting this point and the notion that each person has a nature suited to only one particular task leads to the city where each person is assigned a place.  Multiple machinations and myths are required to keep things in that order.  I believe that Plato is showcasing to us a political order based on a series of assumptions that he does not defend in order to challenge those assumptions.  One of those assumptions is that efficiency is good for human beings.

I am efficient.  I like efficiency.  I like short faculty meetings.  I like making decisions quickly.  I like the satisfaction of having gotten work done.  But I think this view of efficiency doesn’t lead to better relationships, but makes the relationships instrumental for the things.

Efficiency requires thinking that the purpose of life is productivity, getting things done, getting more things done, producing more.  In my philosophy of commerce class, I start with Plato and Aristotle to set up the question of what commerce is for.  Is commerce itself the end?  Or is commerce that which is instrumental for something else?  What happens when the instrument becomes the end?

This is Aristotle’s worry, exchange that is for accumulation is just for more money, which is itself for more money, there is no end, it is always projected further and further to something else, but never properly limited in some actuality or fulfillment.

Efficiency is a similar kind of end–an end that is always for something else, never for itself, and never reaching an end that is good in itself.  Critics of teleology have rightly argued that teleological views of the world measure individuals on how good they are at achieving the end.  I’ve argued that there is a way of thinking about human beings within a natural teleology that is always under revision, that the kind of animals that humans are posit their end and aim to achieve it and revise that end as they aim to flourish.  The problem with ends like efficiency is that they are always for something else, so they can never be judged on their own terms.  Like money, they are that for which everyone aims, but do not include in themselves the reason why.  Efficiency doesn’t escape teleology, it just makes the instrument the end and so always perpetuates the progression toward the end without end.  There is an inefficiency to the drive toward efficiency because it is always moving beyond itself but never getting there.

Like grace, an anti-efficient way of being in the world is excessive and wasteful of resources.  To be against efficiency is not to say that we should strive for wastefulness of natural resources or of are shared energies.  But it is to say that there are some resources that do not diminish in being spent.  And like in Plato’s Republic, ways that we are diminished as persons and as a community by privileging efficiency.  There was a song we sang in middle school music class that I thought was so corny: “Love is Something (Magic Penny).”  It included the line, “It’s just like a magic penny, hold it tight and you won’t have any.  Lend it, spend it and you’ll have so many, they’ll roll all over the floor.”  I liked the inefficiency of the magic pennies rolling all over the floor.

I’ve been thinking about this because I’ve been thinking about arguments in higher education that seek to save money by having fewer faculty and larger classes.  Such programs are doomed to fail — if the goal is really learning — because the project of education is by its nature inefficient.  The hours spent with students, the time spent developing relationships so that students can hear critical feedback without feeling defensive, this work is not efficient.  To prioritize efficiency over pedagogy would be to sacrifice the pedagogy.  If our goal is to increase human capital, then efficiency in education might get us there.  But that’s really about discipline and the production of laboring bodies, not about learning, which at its core is teaching others to think.  That’s the work Plato describes as turning the soul, and that work of the philosopher going back into the cave to motivate the cave-dwellers to turn around, there’s no efficiency in that work.  No, but the expenditure of resources achieves the good.

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