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.