Efficiency: A Means Not An End

I've recently been thinking about efficiency and what it means for human happiness.

At my apartment block there is a man who sorts the recycling. He separates PET bottles, glass bottles, and cans, putting the rest in the burnable trash. This job could obviously be done more efficiently at scale in a centralised location. You could ship all of the potential recycling to a factory, where a tiny fraction of the people aided by machines could sort, classify, and dispatch the garbage for recycling.

But something I've recently asked is "why"? Why do we strive for ultimate efficiency? Where, if anywhere, is the end of this pursuit?

Efficiency for efficiencies-sake

I think a lot of people have forgotten the answer to this question.

The first, most obvious answer that comes to mind is "scale". And by this, we really mean money. When you optimize a process and replace as much human labour with cheaper human labour, or even cheaper machine labour, you can turn a non-profitable process into a profitable one. There is nothing wrong with this, this is the crux of capitalism.

Alternatively, a slightly more social-conscious person might say "time". We free up more human potential from small mundane tasks for larger, more creative, worthwhile tasks.

Either way, increased efficiency is precisely what has moved us forward as a civilised society. It has led to advancements and widespread adoption of modern medicine, hygiene, entertainment and all other obviously-good things.

Efficiency has no end

If your only goal is efficiency then there will be no end in sight. You can always optimize more, reduce costs further, increase profits a little more.

But this simply results in more concentration of wealth, and at a certain point the efficiency gain no longer outweighs the increase in human happiness. At this point, should we accept the less efficient system in favour for the one that promotes more human prospering?

Imagining a larger perspective

This is my hunch of what happens when you look at happiness vs efficiency at a larger scale.

Let's imagine a few points on this hypothetical efficiency-happiness scale:

On the lower end of the scale you have low efficiency and low average happiness. Here the majority of people have to toil hard to earn a living. There is a decent distribution of wealth because the capitalists are paying workers to create the goods which they sell for a profit. I'm not claiming this to be a utopia, they are still much wealthier than the workers, but the workers have work and can afford to live.

As efficiency goes up, the average happiness goes with it. While there are people that lose their jobs from efficiencies they are able to find work in other areas and then also get the benefits that their displacement created (better goods, cheaper goods, better services, etc.)

Now if you take this to its ultimate end what happens? More and more people get replaced by more and more efficient systems. As this continues the amount of people who are no longer able to re-enter the workforce increases. These people need to be supported by the System to distribute wealth because capitalism (in it's current form) would no achieve that goal, which means the capitalists need to be taxed effectively (which they currently are not).

The start of another journey

What this brief exploration of efficiency and happiness has revealed to me is that there is so much I don't really understand about capitalism. There is a lot to learn here starting from the beginning of capitalism to what better capitalism could look like.

Now that I have finished my series on Good Urban Living, I'm looking to tackle another topic, and Better Capitalism feels like the right way to go.

Do you have any books, articles, or videos that you would recommend on capitalism? Throw me a line if you do.


Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.