September 3, 2014

J. Gresham Machen on Efficiency in Government

By In Blogs, C.Jay Engel

In an address in 1926, J. Gresham Machen sought to answer the question “Shall we have a Federal Department of Education?”  Answering in the negative, Machen addressed several themes of the day that were commonly used in defense of government intervention in the economy and society.  Among them is one that can still be found in the media and academic worlds: efficiency.  “We can do such and such government program efficiently!” cries the statist.  But the proper response to this is to say: “so what?” Bad things done efficiently are not suddenly be made good.

The following are quotes taken from the address, which was found as chapter six of this book.b3d5eeb323c50881b0a2ba5bfe1a9b23

Some men seem to think that [efficiency] is admirable for its own sake.  But surely efficiency involves doing something, and our attitude toward the efficiency all depends on whether the thing that is being done is good or bad.

A man does not admire efficiency very much when the efficiency is working to his disadvantage.

Men want us to be overcome by admiration for a system that is working us harm.  For my part, I flatly refuse. The better it works the worse it suits me.

I am in favor of efficiency if it is directed to a good end, but I am not in favor of efficiency if it is directed to something that is bad.

As a matter of fact, federal Departments are not efficient, but probably the most inefficient things on the face of this planet.  But if they were the most efficient agencies that history has ever seen, I should, in this field of education, be dead opposed to them.  Efficiency in a good cause is good, but I am opposed to federal efficiency in this sphere because the result of it is a thing that I regard as bad –namely, slavery.  And I am not inclined to write freedom in quotation marks as though it were a sort of joke.  I believe, on the contrary, that it is something that is very real.  An ounce of freedom is worth a pound of efficiency.

The debate should not be (as it is between the GOP and Democratic parties) whether something can be done efficiently (Romney’s complaint against Obamacare was that it was inefficient), but whether the thing aimed for (and the means to that thing) is good or bad!

Written by C.Jay Engel

Editor and creator of The Reformed Libertarian. Living in Northern California with his wife, he writes on everything from politics to theology and from culture to economic theory. You can send an email to reformedlibertarian@gmail.com
  • David

    THIS! This is the very simple key to the problems with the Republican Party right now.