Efficiency as a Vice

Larry Solum recently recommended Kieran Setiya’s paper Is Efficiency a Vice?, a provocative look at what is often a “god term” in economic thought. Though I found the philosophical arguments bit intricate (why aren’t these types of articles better outlined? too efficient?), I liked the conclusion that “general efficiency, if not a vice, is at least a defect of character. It is a trait that the fully virtuous person does not have.”

Though Setiya opens the paper with an example from an Iris Murdoch novel, I wanted more concrete examples of what he is talking about. I found a candidate in Arlie Hochschild’s article, “On the Edge of the Time Bind.” A few excerpts make the point…

Hochschild notes that

We are continually doing cultural work, choosing this symbol over that . . . in order to say “l love you” or “I would love you” or “I tried to love you” . . . .It is my argument that one set of cultural tools is gaining favor: those drawn from market culture. These, together with the salt and pepper of scientism and rationalism, draw into the home ways of being at work. In light of this rise of market culture, families become very busy resisting, playing with, or–as in the case I present here–embracing rationalism, scientism, and market culture.

Hochschild discusses a consultancy called Leaderworks, which meets with executives and their familes

[T]o create a “Development Plan to Strengthen Family Relationships.” The company also provides, ‘an investment guide with hundreds of specific actions that let you connect with your family as efficiently as possible: buy a speakerphone for the home so you can join in on family game night when you’re on the road; go for a walk with your child every day, even if it’s only to the end of the driveway; create “communication opportunities” while doing the dishes with your spouse or waiting in line with your child at the store.’

The program emphasizes “efficient memory creation,” which often involves replacing time-consuming activities with less time-consuming ones:

In Family 360, the executive is advised in serious tones to get the same fatherhood value out of less time. . . . He learns to re-symbolize fatherhood. . . . Can I change the symbol from here (an activity that takes a lot of time) to there (an activity that doesn’t)? So a weekend getaway is replaced by a candlelit dinner, a camping trip with a game of ball.

The “efficient” family, in other words, frees its breadwinner to spend as much time as possible in “gainful” activities.

What’s the IP connection? Well, when I read an article like this on Google Library, it raises some pretty fundamental questions about the nature of the academic–no, the writing–enterprise. Ekman notes that

Colleges and universities have conflicting interests in this dispute. Some operate their own publishing houses and hope to sell books. Some faculty members are authors and hope to earn royalties from sales. But the major interest of colleges and universities is as users of information — helping thousands of students and teachers find what they need and making these materials available. In this regard, the advantages of Google’s service are enormous, especially for smaller colleges without huge budgets for library purchases.

So the real question comes down to: what is the fundamental purpose of writing? To contribute to a store of common knowledge, or to assure compensation for use? The latter choice may well lead to a more efficient marketplace in text. But it threatens to undermine a larger value of access–a value as essential to the learning enterprise as spontaneous love and care is to the family.

4 thoughts on “Efficiency as a Vice

  1. I read Professor Setiya’s argument a little differently (maybe). I understand him to be making a means/ends point, and that “efficiency” as such cannot withstand scrutiny as an end in itself. If that’s a fair construction of his claim, then I might revise its application to IP. Do we even need to know whether writing has a fundamental purpose? Is it enough to say, perhaps, that writing (or knowledge) might be an end in itself, and then to distinguish between knowledge-as-end-in-itself, and knowledge-as-means? The question about Google could be characterized as whether Google itself (whatever “Google” may mean) is a means or an end, which is a very crude approximation, in ethical terms, of my earlier query about Google as proxy. The more I think about the question, the more I like the recasting — even though, I hasten to add, it doesn’t determine the outcome of any particular Google debate. Setiya’s paper is cast in the context of practical reason, a topic that is dear to the philosophers at Pitt. For the pragmatist, efficiency is merely one gear among many, and a weak one at that, in the means-ends machinery.

  2. Re: ““efficiency” as such cannot withstand scrutiny as an end in itself”–Okay, that makes a lot of sense…rather like Dworkin’s point against Posner in their classic debate over law & ec.

    Re: the point about purpose, about google as means or end: Wow, I guess this could go pretty deep pretty quick. Finnis is pretty comfortable characterizing knowledge-as-end-in-itself, but I’ve sometimes wondered how he specifies *which* knowledge is worthwhile to have (or be, as the case may be).

    I can see ways in which Google is both an end and a means:

    1) end: the archiving of the world’s knowledge…it’s in one safe, backed up place.

    2) means: a particular organization of that knowledge. reducing “search costs” (traditionally a TM concept, but really applicable in all manner of economies of information).

  3. Frank — Thanks for this. Interesting post.

    That Family 360 article is hilarious and terrifying at the same time.

  4. Whether writing has A fundamental purpose is an interesting question. It suggests the need to isolate a single overarching purpose or choose among many, and that, in my opinion, is itself a problem. So to answer Mike’s question, I don’t think we need to know whether writing has a fundamental purpose. (This almost seems like trying to find the fundamental purpose of IP – is it providing incentives, ensuring dissemination, facilitating (market) transactions, …etc.?)

    Rather than choose, we might celebrate the fact that writing (IP) serves many purposes. Of course, it yields expression that others besides the writer can appreciate, consume, learn from, build from, and so on. So the expressive outputs contribute to the store of knowledge that is not stuck in our minds and is instead fixed in a medium from which it an be perceived/received. This is one end, I suppose, and writing a means to that end, and perhaps IP facilitates this means and that is an end for IP (i.e., encouraging writing itself). Besides yielding expressive outputs and contributing to the particular store of knowledge just mentioned, writing also is an intellectual activity that exercises the writer’s faculties and perhaps contributes to her/his human and intellectual capital. This might be another end or purpose of writing, and thus of IP as well. We could go on. But the point is that once there are multiple ends, and pursuit of individual ends may conflict with each other, it becomes increasingly difficult to optimize the system from an “efficiency” perspective. It is much easier to pick a particular end or even a rough proxy (e.g., assuring compensation for use, let’s say), prioritize that, and then focus on efficiently designing the system to pursue that end. Unfortunately, the easier route is politically appealing and seems to be the path we’ve taken in IP. Still, in my opinion, efficiency is a useful metric for assessing how well a system operates in pursuit of various ends — it just isn’t an end in itself and doesn’t tell you which end to prioritize if you take the easy route.

    Regarding google, I agree with Frank that google can and should be understood as embodying both means and ends. I am still left thinking, “and … so what does that tell us”

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