On X-Inefficiency

Yesterday, I wrote this in my summary of Bloom and co-authors’ paper on productivity in India:

Economists tend to not buy into this because they assume that profit maximization implies cost minimization
So in other words, if firms are not minimizing costs by adopting good management practices, it is because “wages are so low that repairing defects is cheap. Hence, their management practices are not bad, but the optimal response to low wages.”


… which brought to mind of the topic of X-inefficiency, for the second time this year. The first was when Tyler Cowen wrote about it in January. Here’s Wikipedia:

X-inefficiency is the divergence of a firm’s observed behavior in practice, influenced by a lack of competitive pressure, from efficient behavior assumed or implied by economic theory. The concept of X-inefficiency was introduced by Harvey Leibenstein


X-inefficiency, in essence, is the idea that the economic theory idea about efficient firms in efficient markets is perhaps a little overblown. Here’s a quote from the paper itself:

The simple fact is that neither individuals nor firms work as hard, nor do they search for information as effectively, as they could. The importance of motivation and its association with degree of effort and search arises because the relation between inputs and outputs is not a determinate one. There are four reasons why given inputs cannot be transformed into predetermined outputs: (a) contracts for labor are incomplete, (b) not all factors of production are marketed, (c) the production function is not completely specified or known, and (d) interdependence and uncertainty lead competing firms to cooperate tacitly with each other in some respects, and to imitate each other with respect to technique, to some degree.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

By the way, the entire paper is worth reading, because it contains multiple delightful nuggets. The Hawthorne effect, which I mentioned in yesterday’s blogpost makes an appearance, and it also helps one understand why microeconomic textbooks are a very poor way to learn about the real world. Consider this delightful quote, for example:

One idea that emerges from this study is that firms and economies do not operate on an outer-bound production possibility surface consistent with their resources. Rather they actually work on a production surface that is well within that outer bound.

Leibenstein, Harvey. “Allocative Efficiency vs. ‘X-Efficiency.’” The American Economic Review, vol. 56, no. 3, 1966, pp. 392–415. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1823775

OK, so people and firms are both not as efficient as econ textbooks make them out to be. This is not, to put it politely, headline material in the non-econ world. What might be potential solutions?

In situations where competitive pressure is light, many people will trade the disutility of greater effort, of search, and the control of other peoples’ activities for the utility of feeling less pressure and of better interpersonal relations. But in situations where competitive pressures are high, and hence the costs of such trades are also high, they will exchange less of the disutility
of effort for the utility of freedom from pressure, etc


In English, this means the following:

  • Government offices are unlikely to be as productive as private sector offices
  • Surround yourself with folks who are go-getter types
  • And this is my take: figure out for yourself a good boss/manager/mentor who will push you, but in a non-zero sum way

This last part is all but impossible, but oh-so-important.

In any case: x-inefficiencies. An underrated topic from micro!

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