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Response to Review no. 732

Peter Sutton’s final phrase perfectly captures the conservative bias of many calls for efficiency, and Sutton is correct to emphasize both the enduring importance of this definition and its seemingly guileless simplicity. For what is simple is precisely the guile: the cunning insistence that efficiency has no value of its own, no meaning or content, that it is merely an instrument ready to execute the values and meanings of those who use it. It is, in other words, ready merely to do what is already being done. Few would object to measuring efficiency while defining, designing, and maintaining machines; the rub – the friction – comes in using it to evaluate human activities.

The historian focusing on the mechanical core of efficiency sees the cultivating and refining of the concept by mechanics seeking to master the performance and yield of their machines; to recognize the concept in use and at work in mastering human performances and yields, the historian’s focus must diverge. And it is in this divergence of focus, in this turning of attention from the circumscribed world of mechanics to the more varied world of human intentions and desires, that efficiency’s own values and meanings may be found. The Mantra of Efficiency argues, as Sutton points out, that efficiency is more complex than simply doing-better-what-is-already-being-done. It argues that efficiency concepts have historically been used not only to manage machines but to manage people, and that efficiency measures, at their core, embody ideologies of control.