Discernment / Exercises

Discernment Exercise: The Reach and Limits of Efficiency

I was at the Post Office this week to mail a package. I stood in line. The line snaked across the lobby and doubled back on itself. The line did not seem to be moving. I waited as someone’s grandmother counted out pennies from the bottom of her purse to purchase three stamps, after reminiscing about each rise in postal rates since the Truman administration. Waited as another clerk chatted about the day’s news headlines with a patron, after his postal business was completed. I thought I should perhaps try to meditate on patience as a virtue, but decided instead to figure out ways to rationalize my growing rage as righteous anger.

The previous week I had waited—in stocking feet—in an even longer line to go through security at an airport. As I waited I wondered why there often seems to be more agents standing and talking than there are checking travelers. I waited as another grandmother ahead of me had her purse ransacked so that an offending pair of tiny scissors nestled in her yarn could be confiscated; her foot long knitting needles were allowed through. I thought of clever ways to ask one of the idle agents what exactly, he was doing to make my flight safer, but decided not to risk delaying my chance to get caffeinated before my fight took off—if it did take off on time, which of course it didn’t.

It may seem as if my topic here is waiting, but it isn’t. Nor is it patience, or anger, or high blood pressure—which, not surprisingly I suppose, I have.

My topic is efficiency. I prefer to do business with efficient institutions peopled by efficient staff, and I don’t associate long lines, interminable waits, and inexplicable delays with efficiency. I tend to see efficiency as a good thing, as having a positive value. And a good case can be made for that. What I’d like to do here, though, is ask whether there are not areas of life in which a desire for efficiency is not good. Where it may even have very negative results. And if so, what would good and positive inefficiency look like?

The progress of an idea

In The Mantra of Efficiency, Dr. Jennifer Alexander provides an interesting history of the notion of efficiency. Prior to the industrial revolution—that is, until the 18th century—efficiency was a philosophical or theological concept applied to God, or in Greek thought, to cause and effect. So, we have Christian theologians referring to the “efficient grace” of God in salvation, meaning that his grace is not just sufficient for redemption, but powerful to save, completely accomplishing the salvation that God wills in his love. And in Aristotle’s philosophy we find a prominent place given to notions of cause, “in which the efficient one was the active and immediate principle that produced change.”

Then, Alexander says, with the Enlightenment and modernity, efficiency began to be applied to human beings. In mid-18th century England, John Smeaton (1724-1792), who pioneered the field of civil engineering, did a series of tests to determine the efficiency of waterwheels. It was an important issue because waterwheels were a primary source of energy at the time. His studies caused controversy, however, because the terms and formulas on which he based his tests were still in dispute. Nevertheless, Smeaton is important not just for launching a new field of science, but for taking an abstract principle from the realms of philosophy and theology and transforming it into a standard by which to measure the value of human effort and work.

Later in France, Gérard-Joseph Christian (1776-1832) pushed the idea of efficiency a step farther. He argued that that some machines were more “perfect” than others. The more perfect machine was the one that “produced the most, the most rapidly, and with the greatest economy; it also contributed to the intellectual and physical well-being of the worker.”

Then, beginning in the 19th century two seminal thinkers applied the notion of efficiency to the task of management. In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species. In it he argued that natural selection was not purposeful but it was efficient in producing change that resulted in progress for the species. “Darwin argued,” Alexander writes, “that selection scrutinized ‘the whole constitution, structure and habits of each creature—favoring the good and rejecting the bad,’ working so that the characteristics of all living beings tended ‘to progress towards perfection.’ He made the management metaphor clear: natural selection undertook the ‘work of improvement’ of species by selecting ‘only for [the good] of the being which she tends.’” The second thinker who applied efficiency to management was Alfred Marshall (1842-1924), an economist. Marshall’s Principles of Economics envisioned economics in evolutionary terms. For him, Alexander says, “efficiency grew out of rational choice and deliberate integration, by a manager, of various skills, materials, and resources into an organization or firm.” As a result, increasingly the pursuit of efficiency was defined as a good thing, as something that contributed to progress and success, as something that applied to far more than just machines, and as something that could be managed rationally.

In the early years of the 20th century, efficiency as a standard was applied directly to workers. Henry Gantt (1861-1919) developed the chart that still bears his name, as a means of keeping track of the productivity of individual workers. Arguments were made for the need for managers and experts to set arbitrary standards to measure efficiency, just as thermometers use arbitrary gradations to measure temperature. The best worker in a factory might make fewer widgets than the number of memos the best secretary can produce in the office upstairs, but by setting arbitrary standards of achievement in each case, both could be measured as to whether they were efficient in their work. They could even be spurred on by incentives attached to those arbitrary standards to even greater efficiency—and productivity—in the future.

And so it has gone. One economist, Nobel winner Robert Fogel (1926- ), saw efficiency as such a good that it changed his view of slavery. When his number crunching indicated that “American slavery had been efficient, more so than agriculture in the northern states,” Fogel concluded in Time on the Cross (1974) that Southern slavery must not have been as bad as he had assumed. Thankfully, Fogel changed his mind later—the truth is that slave owners can use force in ways that seem to produce efficient productivity, while remaining inhumane, oppressive, and deeply evil.

“Characterizing efficiency,” Dr. Alexander correctly concludes, “requires taking seriously both the benefits and deep hurts it has offered.” It also requires that we think deeply about those parts of life where efficiency must never be applied at all, or even where efficiency as a standard must be seen as counter-productive. “Although there may be situations in which people would question looking for efficiency (think of love and faith), in general people speak of efficiency as a good thing and associate it with a job well and economically done. All other things equal, better efficient than not.” If I cannot produce enough widgets to justify my salary, I am probably in the wrong line of work. Employers should seek to train their staff so that customers receive the help they need efficiently. If I am too busy, on the other hand, to hang with my children and grandchildren and listen to their music, I am too busy. And trying to listen efficiently is not merely an oxymoron, it is a recipe for wounding the people I love.

In some areas of life trying to be efficient is the last thing we should desire. Efficiency, from a Christian perspective, can be counter-productive to the good life. This is where the need for careful discernment arises.

Most of us have probably absorbed our ideas about efficiency without much sustained reflection. We dislike long waits in lines at businesses that are poorly run, in which workers seem unable or unwilling to discriminate between necessary and less vital tasks. And we wonder at people who seem able to produce so much in such little time, wondering why we never seem to be as efficient or productive. Engineers and managers study efficiency, of course, in order to develop skill in increasing it in themselves and their work, their machines and their people. Companies hire efficiency experts to help them remain competitive in an increasingly globalized marketplace. We’ve grown up in this world, and so have absorbed, like catching a virus, the notion that all things being equal, efficiency is a good thing.

The problem is that a lack of reflection on a standard or measure that is applied to all of life in a fallen world is a dangerous way to live. Yes, efficiency is good—as long as it is applied to the right things in the right ways. But it can wound people when applied inappropriately, and it can suck the goodness from life if applied to things that are best enjoyed in their most gloriously inefficient forms.

For Christians a standard like efficiency must be examined in light of the biblical Story if we are to live faithful lives in the world God has created. The questions which follow are designed to help us reflect on efficiency—its meaning and its limits.


1. Where have you experienced—or observed—efficiency as a positive, helpful standard? What made it so?

2. Where have you experienced—or observed—efficiency as a negative, destructive standard? What made it so?

3. The argument can be made that modernity has so injected efficiency into the warp and woof of life and culture that it forms an inescapable (even if subconscious) pressure from which it is difficult to escape. So much so, in fact, that we tend to automatically measure things by a standard of efficiency unless we intentionally set out to do otherwise—and then it is a struggle to not apply it. Do you agree? Why or why not?

4. In what parts of life should efficiency never be applied as a standard? Why? What happens when efficiency is (mis)applied in these areas?

5. In a fast-paced, hectic, rest-less (in both meanings of the term), efficiency-inebriated world, one form of Christian faithfulness is to intentionally waste time. Do you agree? Why or why not?

6. Can the Christian spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, or silence ever be made efficient? Should they be? By what standard should they be measured? Should they be measured at all?

7. Christian sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912-1994) is reported to have said: “Modern technology has become a total phenomenon for civilization, the defining force of a new social order in which efficiency is no longer an option but a necessity imposed on all human activity.” Do you agree? Why or why not? What might your agreement/disagreement imply as to your experience of and belief concerning efficiency?

8. Novelist Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) is reported to have said: “The worst enemy of life, freedom and the common decencies is total anarchy; their second worst enemy is total efficiency.” Do you agree? Why or why not?

9. French philosopher Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) is reported to have said: “Remember the parable of talents-the story of the three servants who had received talents, five, two and one respectively? When their master returned they all gave account of their stewardship. The first two had doubled their capital. Each of them said so in sixteen words and their work was pronounced, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.’ The third servant had accomplished absolutely nothing but his report took forty-three words, three times as long as each of the other two reports. Don't be like servant number three. Make good! Don't explain your failure! Do the thing you are expected to do! Then you won't have to explain why you didn't, couldn't, wouldn't, or shouldn't. Efficiency! That is the soul-satisfying joy of making good. Doing your work just a little better than anyone else gives you the margin of success. Making good required no explanation. Failure required forty-three words.” Discuss. Do you believe this a valid interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’ parable (Matthew 25:14-30)? Why or why not?


The Mantra of Efficiency: From Waterwheel to Social Control by Jennifer Karns Alexander (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press; 2008) pp. 2, 9, 35, 60, 75, 167.