More Reviews

  The Cult of Efficiency by Janice Gross Stein  
Review by Sam Sullivan

As modern democratic societies begin to move through the processes of post-industrialization, we as citizens are re-imagining the role of the state.

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 Michael Ignatieff 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 accountability.  Government 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 means.”  Interesting in light of  “Philia: A Dialogue on Citizenship”.

2001 CBC Massey Lectures: The Cult of Efficiency

Back to Home Page

Next Book Review

Previous Book Review


How Our Site Works | About Us | Caring Citizen | Universal Values
Themes | Actions  | Get Involved |
Home | What's New | BOOK REVIEWS