When inefficiency is praised

When most people talk about “efficiency,” they talk about it in one of two ways. For some people, it’s an unabashed good thing, a goal in and of itself. For other people, it may be a good thing but is often used as an excuse to bring bad things — firing employees, or replacing traditional tasks with soulless machines, or the like.

But I’ve been struck lately by several cases where people have defended inefficiency as a virtue. It’s not just that inefficiency has side benefits, but that the direct impact of the lack of efficiency is praiseworthy itself. Usually this is where the activity in question is frowned upon — but perhaps not so much as to warrant an outright ban.

For example, take alcohol laws in the United States. Under the “three-tier” system, the alcohol industry is divided into producers (breweries and distilleries), wholesalers and retailers. The producers, in other words, not only can’t sell directly to the public, but they can’t sell directly to stores that sell to the public, either.

This is doubtlessly inefficient. It “adds to the price of the drink at every step,” it “produces patently ludicrous scenarios,” it harms small producers who are unable to find distribution, and has “fleeced customers for decades,” according to author Kevin R. Kosar.

It’s also exactly the point.

“By deliberately hindering economies of scale and protecting middlemen in the booze business, America’s system of regulation was designed to be willfully inefficient, thereby making the cost of producing, distributing, and retailing alcohol higher than it would otherwise be and checking the political power of the industry,” writes journalist Tim Heffernan.

The inefficiency is deliberate, Heffernan writes, precisely because of the pernicious qualities of alcohol when abused. An outright ban didn’t work, so Americans settled for making the system inefficient, raising the costs and putting an artificial brake on something seen as undesirable.

In contrast, Britain has none of these restrictions — and because of that, Heffernan argues, a much worse national drinking problem.

Whether you agree with Kosar or Heffernan, it’s a striking argument to consider.

It’s the same case with a current issue-of-the-day, drones.

Many people are very upset with the U.S. government for using drones to spy on people and to kill people. And yet, something about that seems odd. Why are people so upset that DRONES are doing the spying or the killing? Some human is the one giving the orders or operating the controls. Why aren’t people complaining about the killing or the spying instead of the method by which that killing or spying is being done?

The key difference between using a drone to fire a missile at a terrorist compound and using, say, a manned aircraft, is that the drone is more efficient. You can conduct the operation without putting an expensive human being at risk. You don’t need to get those expensive human beings to the site in question; they can operate the unmanned vehicle from across the world. By using drones, the costs of conducting killing or spying go way down, thus allowing more of it. (Plus, decades of techno-phobic science fiction has made people a little leery of drones, which doesn’t hurt the public case, but among the people who are really worked up about the subject, efficiency is the real issue.)

Some people might want to ban the government from killing people or spying on people, others just want to limit it. But both can agree that just making it more difficult to do the frowned-upon activity by circumscribing the latest efficient technology is a good first step.

Are there other examples where inefficiency is praised as a self-evident good?_ _