Tag Archives: Free Markets

The Meaning of Efficiency

I’ve been thinking around the relationships between free markets, efficiency, and sustainability lately. I hope to come back to discussions of food production and sustainability soon, but for now here are some of my thoughts about efficiency:

First, I started to tease apart what is really involved with the term ‘efficiency’ apart from our common usage of it. Princeton’s online ‘wordnet’ has a nice, succinct definition of “the ratio of the output to the input of any system.” Another, less scientific way to state it seems to be ‘the best means to attain the desired ends.’ This iteration highlights the normative judgments implicit in our everyday use of the term. Efficiency in its technical sense defines the inputs to maximize outputs, whether that be production or destruction. The atomic bomb is the most efficient means to kill large numbers of people, but our goal should not be to destroy life. When we use efficiency in the economic sense, we generally refer to utilizing resources such that no more output can be got from them without additional input. Though the language is slightly different for each of these definitions, ‘outputs’ has the same meaning as ‘desired ends,’ just with different connotations(outputs=value neutral, desired ends=normative). Continue reading


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