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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.