The Tyranny of Efficiency

(following from “Embracing the Fall”)

My second big concern about Chapter 2 of Calvin and Commerce is that, to the extent that Hall and Burton want to confront and ameliorate the effects of man’s depravity in economics, their solution is one of law, rather than grace.  One of the first sections in the chapter is entitled “If We Recognize Depravity, We Will Not Tolerate Non-productivity.”  This language is harsh and a bit frightful.  For Hall and Burton, productivity and efficiency are the highest values, and the slothful nature of man must thus be greeted with no mercy.  The Calvinist doctrine of total depravity is meant to bring us all to humility, not pride, recognizing that we too are totally depraved.  This thus serves as a basis for a gracious and compassionate response to the sinner (in imitation of Christ), not a stark refusal to tolerate him. 

But there is no note of grace in Hall and Burton: “Workers who fail to enhance and to produce should not be rewarded; their job performance is not acceptable.  Workers who do enhance and produce should be rewarded; that in turn will lead to more productivity.”   Indeed, this is to put it more gently than what they go on to recommend–anyone who fails to produce must be severely penalized, so he will learn his lesson and produce more.  They call this “accountability in the marketplace,” but this accountability flows only one way–that is to say, employers must hold workers accountable, but workers are to be stripped of any means to hold employers accountable.  An accountable marketplace is one with

“the unrestrained/unrestricted movement of wages, rewards, and employment choices (on the employee’s side), and consequently the unrestricted ability to hire and fire (on the employer’s side).  The key word here is ‘unrestricted,’ meaning ‘free of distortion.’  A distortion of the second pillar of accountability is found in institutions and organizations–whether unions, trade guilds, cartels, or other collective bodies–that inhibit the free flow of employment.”  

Notice that they are not even sheepish about the qualifier “on the employer’s side”–for whatever reason, structures of accountability on the employee’s side are simply not important.  They complain that in most states and countries, “employers cannot fire at will, and most are required to show cause, even when firing untenured, nonunionized employees.”  What a horrible world, in which an employer would actually have to offer some reason for his actions before he stripped his employees of their livelihoods!  It’s almost as if Hall and Burton want to play right into Marx’s hands, by advocating a completely despotic capital class.  But if they want to do this, why must they drag poor Calvin into it?  What did he do to deserve such company? 

Of course, this reaction against legal constraints on capital masks a theological move that substitutes law for grace.  The remedy to depravity is a salvation by works, or, quite literally, by work.  The problem with the world in Hall and Burton’s model is that people do not work enough, and the solution is to make people work hard and reward them if they do, but punish them if they don’t.  Efficiency and productivity are thus idolized in their system, leaving us with their slightly chilling statement “We will not tolerate non-productivity.”  This leads to a kind of economic euthanasia (and indeed logically suggests full-blown euthanasia).  Unproductive members of society are not to be tolerated and are to be removed to make way for younger, more productive members.  Consider this statement, about why the tenure system at universities should be abolished (a system about which our authors are very worked up in these pages):

“The process of rewarding an educator who achieves a certain status greatly diminishes the employer’s ability to fire or release that worker.  As a result, the university becomes increasingly inefficient and may reach the point where it lacks the budgetary means to hire new–possibly more gifted–educators.  Furthermore, these experienced professors require higher salaries for jobs that could often be performed at a lower cost by younger, but equally talented, employees.” 

So much for honoring the  hoary head.  Seriously, I would’ve thought that, as Christians, we would value and cherish the very few sectors of society in which respect for the wisdom of elders still held out against the grist-mill of rational economic calculation.  But Hall and Burton will not have it–they seem to wish to subject every remaining arena of society to the dominion of the market.  If they have their wish (and modern society has come pretty close to giving it to them), they will be hard-pressed to offer any meaningful opposition to the proliferation of abortion, euthanasia, pornography, slavery, and everything else which subordinates the value of human persons to the value of money.  

8 thoughts on “The Tyranny of Efficiency

  1. Provocative stuff as usual, Brad. Thanks. Might be interesting to tie some of this in to the traditional Dutch Reformed prohibition of membership in trade unions. I'm not overly familiar with the history, but I'd be curious to see when that practice began, and if it's possible to connect it directly to 19th century developments in Calvinist theology — or perhaps it was merely a practical move due to the economic demographics of the Dutch immigrant church in the Midwestern US.


  2. Donny

    Good, but what about where scripture does speak like this? We have grace, of course, but then we have comments about work and reward in Proverbs.I'm actually beginning to notice a category problem in these debates. Capitalism seems to divide the world between the lazy and the hard-working. The former should get little, and the latter should get much. Forms of anti-capitalism, instead, divide the world between oppressed and oppressors. The former are poor, the latter are rich, and that should be reversed.The problem is that, in their own terms, both divisions have biblical warrant, and they both seem to talk past each other because of this. For some balance, we need to be able to combine them, or at least switch between them, to have a approach with much practical value.


  3. Brad Littlejohn

    Davey–Heh, "provocative" is your polite way of saying "pugnacious," isn't it? I am certainly curious about this connection you mention, and please point me to any literature you might know on the subject.Donny–On my reading, Scripture is full of admonitions for employers to do justice to their laborers, and criticisms of failures to do so. You are right of course to say that we shouldn't oversimplify like some capitalists do and say that if you're poor, you must be lazy, or oversimplify like some anti-capitalists and say that if you're poor, you must be oppressed. And I think most commonsensical anti-capitalists would fully recognize that poverty often comes from one's own sin. However, even there, this doesn't mean the guilty poor don't deserve our compassion–perhaps their bad habits come from a terrible family situation, and if so, we should shed the light of grace, not judgment, into this situation. As far as the Biblical balance, you're right of course that both principles are in the Bible, but I think that the Bible is actually rather skewed to the oppressor/oppressed side of things. I remember being shocked to find that even in Proverbs, usually appealed to as a storehouse of pro-business wisdom, verses criticizing the oppression of the poor by the rich clearly outnumber those criticizing the lazy, and outside of Proverbs and a couple passages in Paul, the latter is almost absent, whereas the former is all over the Law, the Prophets, Jesus, and James. (see, for instance, this post:; and some of the follow-up posts)Of course we should have our eyes open to the reality of laziness, and the poverty it leads to. But so often this becomes a way for us to simply dismiss the poor as wicked and ignore them.


  4. Donny

    Some more scattered thoughts. You said this:"However, even there, this doesn't mean the guilty poor don't deserve our compassion–perhaps their bad habits come from a terrible family situation, and if so, we should shed the light of grace, not judgment, into this situation."The one thing we have to be careful about is being so compassionate that we completely remove the curse flowing from laziness or "bad habits." It's sin, whether from a family situation or not, and there are consequences to sin. Redemption is about reversing those bad habits, encouraging repentance, so that the actions that caused the misfortunes of poverty are removed.Obviously this doesn't mean we anyone who ever shows any amount of laziness out to die. But we have to be careful that we aren't wiser or more compassionate than God Himself. Or, more precisely, that we don't misdirect our compassion. God has set things up to where we are rewarded for good work and cursed for bad work. This is a good thing, and yes, it does mean that we work for our own reward. Capitalism is correct in saying that reward encourages better work. I want to strongly maintain this (though in a way that doesn't include the sin aspect – I don't think it has to be sinful greed that drives us) as well as a biblical compassion for oppressed.My main concern is that I don't know how. In everything I've seen on the topic, neither side seems to actually reconcile the two in a way that makes them complementary, to where they naturally fit. Instead, either side seems to just begrudgingly let the other's perspective slip in the back door.One example would be your last comment. You are willing to grant me that the capitalist point, but only with a few qualifications that weaken it satisfactorily. That doesn't do it for me. The capitalist idea is a great one, one that God thought long before they did, and I'd rather not grumble when I see it in Paul or Solomon. It makes me feel like a Calvinist furrowing his eyebrows over John 3:16.


  5. Alexander Garden

    I am sympathetic cum Braddico on this point but Donny's questions got me thinking.If a man is lazy and his employer doesn't pay him well, he isn't being oppressed, is he? Because he hasn't earned much of anything anyway. Because if a man hasn't worked he should not eat. If that is the case, then only good workers are capable of being oppressed, and the resolution works like this: there exist in the world lazy men who do not work and are justly deprived of worldly goods; men who work and are justly rewarded for their work; and men who work but are unjustly deprived of their fair share, are under-compensated. The free-market people are right that the lazy bums need to get off the couch and get to work and the social-justice people are right that there are hard-working men who deserve more credit than they get, even if they are cheap to replace.I can see potential problems with this scheme. Some men start out being good workers but become lazy when they discover that hard work doesn't pay off. Oppressed men are candidates to become lazy men. And on the other hand, the hard-working man, according to Proverbs, is the man who does not need to have a boss. According to Proverbs, every man who can't make himself get out of bed on time without the threat of being fired is lazy.Which suggests something else to me. Maybe when we think of economic justice we think too much in terms of employers and employees. Maybe we should be thinking more about large businesses versus small ones. (Not to deny the importance of employer/employee relations.) Maybe we should be thinking more about Wal-Mart strong-arming small suppliers, and maybe we should be thinking more about rich Lowes taking advantage of its size and strength to drive hard-working mom and pop shops out of business.


  6. Bradley

    Donny,I'm not sure you talking about capitalism and "anti capitalism" carefully enough. The way you talk about it seems to equate capitalism with reward-for-work. But that's just not true, philosophically or pragmatically. A hardcore free market isn't the only place you'll find the concept of reward-for-labour; it's not the bastion of reward-for-labour that it's made out to be. In fact, quite the opposite is true: receiving proper compensation is a huge part of social justice, and those who promote social justice are hugely in favor of proper compensation. Remember, that's how Marxism started in the first place, as a reaction to an unrestrained market that wasn't providing workers with anything near a proper compensation. (Marxism fails to deliver proper compensation as well, for different reasons, but that's not what we're talking about at the moment.) My point is that equating capitalism with reward-for-work misses the entire point. You said you're looking for something more balanced Donny, something that gives reward where it's due, gives mercy where it's due, and prevents or punishes oppression wherever it occurs. What you're describing isn't some balance between capitalism and anti capitalism; it's just social justice, plain and simple.


  7. Donny

    That's not primarily what I was thinking about. Sure, reward-for-work is part of it, but I was talking about the lazy/rich dichotomy in capitalism against the oppressed/oppressor dichotomy in social justice. You're right to point out that reward or justice for labor is at the center of both of them. But they take it two different directions, both of which are true. Capitalists demands greater reward for greater work, ingenuity, production, etc. and lesser reward for laziness, lack of production, stupidity, etc., and so it strives for an inequality. Social justice demands greater equality, a more even, just reward for oppressed workers.Both are true, though. That's what I'm trying to reconcile. There's something very good behind both, and it seems like just another example of a debate we have to step out of in order to get at what the Bible pushes for. Proverbs says both; I just can't figure out what that means.And really, for me, the difficulty is more practical, at the level of business ethics. Is it okay for me to be pursuing profit for selfish reasons? Must every business pursuit have philanthropy behind it? How do I reconcile the biblical push for self-sacrifice and equality with monetary business pursuits?And, of course, I'm thinking out loud, so this might not make any sense.


  8. Brad Littlejohn

    Hm, what a lovely discussion. I agree with Donny, Alex, and Bradley. :-)No, seriously, Donny, I'm happy to say that we have to maintain both. However, I think it's a question of where we start from–do we start from the presupposition that if someone's poor, it's probably because they're lazy? I don't think we should–for one, this is empirically false in the world today (though it may end up true in many cases, as Alex says, that they become lazy because they're inescapably poor). And, as I've said, although the lazy/diligent division does get a fair amount of airtime in Scripture, it's not nearly as prominent as the oppressed/oppressor. And so I tend to think our rhetoric should reflect that emphasis. I suppose the social justice people would say that we need to deal with the problem of those who are poor through oppression, and once we've diligently done that, it'll become clear who is still poor just because they're lazy, and then we can deal with that problem. But I suppose that's not quite a satisfactory way of approaching it. I want to say that it just requires a discerning, compassionate, hands-on approach from all those engaged in dealing with poverty, but it's not just a pastoral issue. Given the complex structure of our macro-economies, figuring out where poverty comes from and how to solve it is at least partly a theoretical task, and so the ideological questions become quite important. As far as profit and selfishness, I would say that I think people shouldn't pursue profit for purely selfish reasons. There will almost always be an element of self-interest involved, but I should also be wanting to do my work in a way that serves those around me. If I've found a way of earning money that's great for me but is harmful to my customers (blatant examples would be things like addictive drugs and predatory loans, but unfortunately, the list is rather longer than that), then that's out. So, self-interest is fine as _a_ motivation, but not as _the_motivation.


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