Cult of Efficiency
by Janice Gross Stein
Review by Sam Sullivan
modern democratic societies begin to move through the processes of
post-industrialization, we as citizens are re-imagining the role of
We live in an age dominated by the cult of
efficiency. When it is used correctly, efficiency is important: it
must always be part of the conversation when resources are scarce
and citizens and governments have important choices to make among
competing priorities. Janice Stein draws on public education and
universal health care, locally and globally as flashpoints in the
debate about efficiencies and their delivery. She argues that what
will define the quality of education and health care is whether
citizens and experts can negotiate new standards of accountability.
The cult of efficiency will not take us far enough.
Efficiency is not an end, it is a means.
It is not value, it is a way to achieve other values.
Whereas productive efficiency is very useful when applied to
the private markets, this concept has now entered our public life
with repercussions on the nature of our civil society.
There is an important difference between
private goods and public goods.
Private goods are easily divisible and people can be easily
excluded from their consumption by customers or consumers.
Public goods can be consumed by everyone and the outcome
sought is the support of citizens and citizenship.
Public goods must serve collective as well as individual
needs. When we consume
public goods we must do so as citizens as well as consumers.
More and more, states are “steering not
rowing”, providing oversight not direct provision of services, and
creating public markets to try to replicate the efficiencies of
private markets. These public markets respond to growing demands for the right
to choice. These public
markets have not had success in achieving efficiency but they have
surprisingly enhanced accountability.
The rights revolution is as
says about both “enhancing our right to be equal and protecting
our right to be different”. The
demand for choice through public markets reinforces
community-building as people become engaged in the process of
choosing. The real
threat to civil society is the absence of civic engagement and in
the standardization of the civic idea.
Public markets could help overcome these not by achieving
efficiency but empowerment of citizens through choice.
The creation of public markets to improve
efficiency has not achieved efficiency but has brought greater
when it provides direct services has been reluctant to make itself
accountable for outcomes but is more likely to impose accountability
on public markets that are operated by others.
Many have claimed that the globalized world
will result in the withering away of the nation-state.
Stein says just the opposite.
The largest globalized trading states also have the largest
government expenditures per capita.
Markets are still dependent on the legal structures of the
state while citizens turn to the state to protect their right to
choice of public goods.
The problem with accountability is that there
is a tendency to go for simple, efficient measures that do not
reflect the complex qualitative outcomes required from public
markets. The great challenge will be to determine new ways of
constructing accountability for public markets.
In the past, accountability was achieved by a periodic vote
for public officials. Accountability
is becoming more of a permanent dialogue.
In considering the limits to choice she
examines the thoughts of John Rawls who says that the principle of
equal liberty must be supplemented by principles to compensate for
social and economic inequalities and differences that restrict
people’s access to public goods.
Access to education and health are essential, preconditions
for exercising our right to choice.
She ends her book with a call for an
“inclusive and reflective public conversation, first about values
and only then about choice, first about ends and only then about
in light of “Philia:
A Dialogue on Citizenship”.
RELATED BOOKS AND REFERENCES:
CBC Massey Lectures: The Cult of Efficiency
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