Janice Gross Stein, The Cult of Efficiency
Toronto: House of Anansi Press Limited, 2001
When we define efficiency as an end, divorced from its larger purpose, it becomes nothing less than a cult.
A cult is a system of religious worship that engenders almost blind loyalty in its members. Its mystical rites and ceremonies foster in its devotees a sense of belonging and a reverence for core beliefs. Cult members reinforce these beliefs through the incantation of central dogmas. And as the ad for the wired kitchen demonstrates, the invocation of efficiency has approached cult status in our post-industrial age.
The concept of efficiency has had widely different meanings in different historical periods. It has often been used in explicitly pursuit of political purposes: a technical discussion of efficiency and public goods – allegedly the concern of professional economists – is almost always embedded in a larger political agenda. Whether it was the pursuit of virtue in ancient times, or the creation of a merit-based administration at the turn of the past century, or a frontal attack on the bureaucratic state and a turn to markets, as it frequently is today, efficiency has served as a rallying cry for larger political purposes. The allegedly technical concept of efficiency has been politically charged in every age. Our age is no exception.
When efficiency is a cult among political leaders, when cost-containment and cost cutting are political ends, it constrains the way public markets work. This is not what advocates of public markets expected. More to the point, health-care buyers and providers need to cooperate with one another as much as they need to compete. Competition, the bedrock of the argument for public markets, can take us only so far.
In public education, the story is different. When structures were changed and public markets were created through school choice, charter schools were often not subject to the same rigorous standards as schools within the regular public system. Ironically, the public market in education has created a two-tier system of accountability.
The problem goes even deeper. Even if competition could be heightened in public health-care markets, and even if all schools in the public system were tested in exactly the same way, citizens would still need to know what health-care providers and educators are accountable for. What is it that we expect from those who buy healthcare on our behalf, and from those who deliver it to us? What is it that we expect from those who provide education to our children? These are hard questions that go to our basic values, values that touch on how we think about ourselves and our societies. The what of accountability matters, and it is the first essential that must be in place before we can even begin to talk about how we wish to hold our governments, our buyers and our providers accountable in public markets.
“Efficiency Tests,” argued one specialist, “tend to drive out less efficient tests, leaving many important abilities untested – and untaught.”
Choosing the most easily graded test – the efficient test – is a concept of efficiency that badly diminishes the educational system. If we try in the name of efficiency, or even of accountability, to use just a single measure, we create an impoverished set of incentives in our public system of education, as system that is the outward manifestation of our deepest dreams of citizenship and society. Our values and our common sense tell us that a broad array of qualitative and quantitative measures will better capture whether students have the kinds of knowledge they will need to be engaged and committed citizens, as well as productive members of society.
We ignore efficiency at our peril. Efficiency, properly understood, is a means, not an end; a process, not a value. It is a vital tool to achieve other public goals and goods. If we are to provide the highest-quality public goods that reflect our civic values, we have no choice but to become efficient in the process. Public conversation about efficiency must move from cult to analysis, from end to means, from value to process.
Beyond the cult is a legitimate and important discussion of efficiency as cost-effectiveness in the delivery of public goods. What distinguishes the legitimate conversation form the cult is a serious and deep discussion of purpose: at what do we want to be effective? Whether this purpose is itself a route to a larger end – whether a civic education is a step toward a civic democracy or universal health care is part of a society that values fairness – does not materially affect the argument. Without discussion of purpose, effectiveness makes no sense, and without discussion of effectiveness, efficiency is stripped of its analytic power and becomes a cult.