The prevailing agenda: productivity and efficiency

There are no signs that our societies are altering their general plan, which is to strive to become ever more productive and to achieve ever greater efficiencies. On the contrary, we seem to flow with Nature, so to speak, following the clearest plan that Nature has set out for the evolution of our species and our societies. Thus Homo economicus as a player, and economics as a discipline, promise to retain their relevance for the foreseeable future. Is this a desirable prospect for mankind? Yes and no.

We may illustrate this idea with an analogy. Few creatures are known to be as productive and efficient as the ant. However, it is unlikely that mankind will ever become as hard-working as this tiny creature, nor is it likely that mostly of us will ever try. Homo economicus does not work for the sake of working or for the sake of building something in collaboration with others, but for the life that work offers: material wealth, ease, and happiness. Contributions to the common good are in the main subsidiary effects. Homo economicus cannot create great wealth without co-operating with others, without sharing the wealth; and society cannot do without him, as Joseph Schumpeter was the first to recognize when he described the importance of the entrepreneur. Instead, public management becomes a strategy by which economic agents have to be tricked into doing good.

We do not really want to live the life of the ant. Man enjoys his inefficiencies, his irrational decisions, dreams, and mistakes; we appreciate them as a vital part of what it means to be human. In particular, and unlike the ant, we want to retain the right to make fun of it all. (Thus humour can be seen not only as an essential component of what it means to be truly human, but also as a self-deception mechanism by which Man is induced to accept his destiny, and without which life would be unbearable). On the other hand we seem doomed to continue to work to become ever more productive and efficient, because we are constantly being seduced into imposing ever higher demands on ourselves in terms of improving our standard of living. Once we have the house, we want the sailing boat, then the sports car, and so on. Our wants never seem to be exhausted (even though our needs remain fairly simple). And between these two ideals, that of following our wants or just our needs, lies our inconsistent productive path: on one side Man, on the other machine. This struggle or dilemma opens up an ocean of corresponding emotions to be delved into by politicians, artists, and philosophers. Just reflecting on the richness of this dichotomy makes you feel alive.

The analogy with the life of the ant is most suitable for private-sector employees. In most of the public sector, work is confined to fixed hours. At four o'clock the civil servant goes home and forgets all about work. He does not live for his work, but at bests fulfills his obligations conscientiously. At home he will have his hobbies, meet up with friends, and spend time with his family - in other words, do many of the things that Homo economicus hopes to be able to do one day, once he has accumulated enough money, only of course he will do them in bigger and better ways. Meanwhile restlessness becomes his habit and nature.

Both Homo economicus and the civil servant, whom we can call Homo bureaucraticus, are aware of the limits to their performance. We can only do so much, the day only has so many hours. Since we do not want to spend all our time working, the solution has been, on the one hand, to have people work faster, and on the other hand to apply new technologies and new management theories to make our existing time more productive. Then there is the blessing of cumulative knowledge. We learn faster and more easily what others slowly learned before us. Thus we can continually make new contributions, achieve real progress. As a species we have come a long way, from listening to our grandparents' experience round the fireside, to searching for our own information on the Internet. It represents a gigantic leap forward in the evolution of knowledge.

The search for greater productivity and efficiency continues to drive our development, ideally without giving us too many health problems. We are already performing at the limit of what we can do without incurring severe symptoms of mental stress, stemming primarily from the pressure put on us to keep up with the rest, that is, with the competition, but also from our lack of clearly defined personal and moral ideals. Genetically we seem to be suited more to physical stress. After all, it is only a few generations since we were ploughing the fields with an ox or a horse. Then, we believed strongly in higher goals and aims, so work was more bearable. Today many of us have no clear purpose beyond our own self-interest. Our bodies consequently take more time to adjust to new work styles and new mental stresses. So-called multitasking is itself a dead end; people who do many things at once are seldom able to do any one thing well. Instead we risk becoming more phlegmatic, shallower. The genetic mutation needed to help us deal with this pressure might take thousands of years to arise, if it ever does.

A more worrying problem is what will happen to the planet if growing numbers of individuals continue to strive to enrich themselves through the production of goods. We are 6.5 billion people on the planet now, up from only 2.5 billion in 1950. In the long run we shall need a more sustainable way of providing a good life for all. This is an idea which by now most political parties have caught up with, but few of them have good answers, primarily because we are locked into a system of continuous growth. The problem is that sustainability implies drastically limiting consumption, yet our values are based predominantly on material growth. If nothing changes, the history of our species promises to be quite short, relative to other species which have existed in the past but are now extinct. If so, Nature may come to regard the rational-decision variety of animal brain as a failed project. Again, we need to have faith in Man's ability to rise to a challenge. That implies a limited duration for the age of geoeconomics. At the same time we have to compete in the world as it exists, if for no other reason than to have a say in how we are governed. In this world there are no more powerful engines for the competitive advantage of nations than multinational enterprises. These multinationals do not have evil plans, they are not out to hurt the planet, and they almost automatically adapt to our needs and demands. So it is our demands that we must change.

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