Efficiency and Values

The term ‘efficiency’ is a concept that has meaning only in the context of an agreed set of objectives. Such objectives can include objectives about inter-personal distribution, typically reflecting one or other interpretation of equity. Occasions when the goals of efficiency and distribution conflict of the agreed set of objectives does not include equitable distribution. Indeed, historically and still to a great extent, the dominant interpretation of ‘efficiency’ has typically included only the objective of measured economic production/consumption. We should at most call this interpretation ‘economic efficiency’ and not honor it with the label of efficiency in general. But the efficiency label has enormous legitimizing power and functions as a trump card in the modern vocabulary. No one can declare themselves against it. If a policy option is deemed inefficient that usually sinks it. So contenders try to capture the label, to serve their particular set of objectives. This is what business interests and mainstream economists have successfully done for a long time. We need ask: Efficiency by which values?


Mainstream economists have focused on growth of aggregate production and national income. Business and other sectional interests may focus on sectional gains but advocate these behind the language of ‘efficiency.’ Not infrequently, the policies behind an efficiency label have been less economic as well as less equitable, and an ‘efficient’ only for elites.


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