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On Barry Schwartz's "The Danger of Too Much Efficiency" in The New York Times

Mark D. White

BarryschwartzIn the New York Times, psychologist Barry Schwartz (author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less) warns us of "The Danger of Too Much Efficiency," in which he argues that, while efficiency is generally a good thing and enables increases in standards of living, more efficiency is not necessarily better. The first half of his piece is an excellent summary of the benefits of efficiency, which he illustrates using the concept of friction:

...firms compete to become more efficient, and we as consumers, along with Bain and its like, benefit from this competition.

What stands in the way of efficiency is friction. When automobile manufacturers struggle to squeeze as many miles per gallon as possible out of their car designs, friction is the enemy. Their aim is to design a vehicle that uses every ounce of fuel to move the car forward.

And so it is in the world of finance. As the historian Niall Ferguson reminds us in his book The Ascent of Money, hard as it is to imagine, people didn’t always have money. The invention of money went a long way toward reducing the friction, the inefficiency, in financial transactions. No longer did the farmer have to bring sacks of potatoes to the marketplace to trade for eggs and milk. Money was a medium of exchange that greatly reduced what some have called the financial coefficient of drag.

But Schwartz recognizes that increasing efficiency by reducing friction is not the only important concern to individuals or society. After summarizing the efficiency gains from securitizing mortgages and increased access to consumer credit, he turns to the downside:

All these examples tell us that increased efficiency is good, and that removing friction increases efficiency. But the financial crisis, along with the activities of the Occupy movement and the criticism being leveled at Mr. Romney, suggests that maybe there can be too much of a good thing. If loans weren’t securitized, bankers might have taken the time to assess the creditworthiness of each applicant. If homeowners had to apply for loans to improve their houses or buy new cars, instead of writing checks against home equity, they might have thought harder before making weighty financial commitments. If people actually had to go into a bank and stand in line to withdraw cash, they might spend a little less and save a little more. If credit card companies weren’t allowed to charge outrageous interest, perhaps not everyone with a pulse would be offered credit cards. And if people had to pay with cash, rather than plastic, they might keep their hands in their pockets just a little bit longer.

Rather than focus on his policy recommendations (with which I have much disagreement, as regular readers of this blog can easily imagine), I want to address his normative analysis of efficiency, which with I have much sympathy. I do think, however, that the particular way in which he criticies the emphasis of efficiency is strange, and obscures his greater point to some extent--a point with which, again, for the most part I agree.

Using the Aristotelian language he adopted in his more recent book (written with Kenneth Sharpe), Practical Wisdom, Schwartz recommends finding the "golden mean" of efficiency rather than simply purusing its maximum level. While I don't disagree with this in principle, I do think it is an odd way to put the problem, since it suggests that we can find the optimal level of efficiency without consideration of other values. If there is a golden mean of efficiency, the only way to find it is to determine how much efficiency is consistent with other values we want to promote (such as justice, dignity, and equality). This is really no different from the Aristotelian determination of the golden mean of characteristics like courage, in which the extremes of foolhardiness and cowardice offend other values and ends, as opposed to being internally inconsistent.

But I find the golden mean analysis to be misleading in a deeper sense when applied to efficiency. The reason we can't determine the optimal level of efficiency is because it is an empty value--it's a mean to an end, not an end in itself. And as such, it should be maximized in order to provide the means to pursue valuable ends, except insofar as it conflicts with those ends themselves. In other words, the pursuit of efficiency must be limited, but out of recognition that other values are more important, not that there is something inherently bad about a certain level of efficiency. The only "danger with too much efficiency" is that it implies that important values have been neglected in its name.

To a large extent, this all cashes out the same way; my disgreement with Schwartz on this issue is largely rhetorical rather than substantive. He emphasizes the excessive attention given to efficiency, and then recommends that it be frustrated (by increasing frictions through regulation) in order to correct the resulting problems. But as I said above, the issue is not an excessive focus on efficiency, but on neglect on other values which should temper it. It is as if we said that, if people neglect their families to spend time at the gym, then we should discourage gym use by raising membership fees or reducing hours of operation. But exercise--also a good thing in general, though it can be taken too far in many ways--is not the problem here. The neglect of family is the problem, and it is that neglect that should be addressed. In general, our focus should be placed directly on the neglected values (justice, equality, and so forth) rather indirectly on limiting the threat to them (too much efficiency).

Indeed, Schwartz does emphasize the importance of corrective norms, although he resorts to regulation to bolster them:

Perhaps we can use the criticism of Bain Capital as an opportunity to bring a little friction back into our lives. One way to do this is to use regulation to rekindle certain social norms that serve to slow us down. For example, if people thought about their homes less as investments and more as places to live, full of the friction of kids, dogs, friends, neighbors and community organizations attached, there might be less speculation with an eye toward house-flipping. And if companies thought of themselves, at least partly, as caretakers of their communities, they might look differently at streamlining their operations.

True, increased observance of these norms would increase friction and reduce efficiency, but that shouldn't be the goal--the goal should be increased observance of the norms themselves! Again, the result is the same, but I worry that focusing on efficiency as the "target variable" risks obscuring the more important issues behind it.

I think Schwartz would agree with me that, in the end, the best way to conceptualize of efficiency is as a means to an end, in which the values we hold individually and collectively are promoted by it at the same time that they temper its pursuit.


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Well said, Mark.

Reading your last sentence, I wonder if there is more at stake than simply "values"? Would an emphasis on values be mainly a onsequentialist approach? Could one also say a "way of thinking" or a "way of being" is at stake?

Definitely, Jonathan (and thanks)--yes, I meant values in the most general sense, as is whatever we value or hold dear.

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