Saturday, February 28

Doing more with less

On NPR, Chana Joffe-Walt cites Ben Zimmer, a lexicographer with the Visual Thesaurus, whom she says "loves phrases like 'do more with less'," and thinks "the phrase is useful in many ways because it's strategically vague". He says Benjamin Franklin "said that by diligence shall we do more with less perplexity. Well, there he was talking about how we should work hard and achieve greater results. But he actually specified less perplexity."

Joffe-Walt says that Franklin is "talking about making work simpler by just being focused and industrious. Zimmer says 100 years later, French economist Frederic Bastiat picked up on that same idea," and Zimmer cites Bastiat saying that "man is so constituted, that his constant concern is to lessen the ratio of effort to result, to substitute the action of nature for his own action. In a word: to do more with less."

Joffe-Walt then claims, "Bastiat is not talking about working harder. He's talking about putting your feet up." No, she's wrong. Look at the context. In Harmonies économiques, translated here, Bastiat wrote:
Man is so constituted that his constant concern is to lessen the ratio of effort to result, to substitute the action of Nature for his own action—in a word, to do more with less. His skill, his intelligence, his industry are always directed toward this end.
And if he "discovers a process whereby he can complete his task with half the labor it previously took...he will turn it to his own exclusive advantage. Either he will rest half the day, or else he will work twice as hard."

And what is his conclusion?
This, I may briefly remark, is what is always lost sight of in discussions concerning the question of machinery, free trade, and progress in general. We observe that labor is laid off by more efficient techniques, and we become alarmed. We fail to note that a corresponding proportion of the cost is likewise placed at our disposal at the same time.
And indeed, it's from the chapter entitled "Producer and Consumer". It's about how efficiency is good for the consumer. So one of the few times NPR cites Bastiat, it gets him wrong. Doing more with less brains, maybe.

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