A recent Heritage post responded to an article in The New York Times that suggested we be less productive. One comment challenged our rebuttal:

The takeaway you should have gotten is that we are so addicted to the concept of efficiency that we forget that in some instances being more “productive” actually hurts us rather than helps us. Do we really want to maximize the amount of patients one doctor can see in a day or cram as many kids as we can into one classroom? That might make us superficially more “efficient”, but does having a poorly educated, sicker society actually make us better off?

This comment demonstrates a misunderstanding of how productivity gains contribute to an economy and a lack of awareness of what productivity gains have provided throughout human history. More fundamentally, it demonstrates confusion as to what productivity itself means.

There’s no reason that productivity gains need to mean cramming in as many patients as possible in one day or jamming more kids into a classroom. Rather, productivity increases mean quite the opposite.

Productivity gains accrue when one can accomplish a task better using the same amount of resources or less. Notice the emphasis on accomplishing the task: The task for a doctor is not to see patients; it is to help those patients. The task for a teacher is not simply to lecture at lots of kids; it is to teach kids.

When a doctor can provide better care using the same amount of resources, that’s a productivity gain. If a doctor can effectively treat more patients because of technology with the same or better care, it reflects a productivity gain.

Consider the improvements in pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and medical techniques, all of which have immensely increased productivity. In medicine today, medical scans catch cancers at early stages, doctors increasingly track medical information on computers rather than wasting time wading through mounds of papers and file folders, and patients receive treatments that are less time consuming and less painful, and they often have much higher success rates.

Improving productivity should be the goal of economic policy. Not making it so would ultimately hurt all of us.