Efficiency Movement

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The Efficiency Movement was a major dimension of the Progressive Era in the United States. It flourished 1890-1932. Adherents argued that all aspects of the economy, society and government were riddled with waste and inefficiency. Everything would be better if experts identified the problems and fixed them. The result was strong support for building research universities and schools of business and engineering, municipal research agencies, as well as reform of hospitals and medical schools. Perhaps the best known leader was engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, who proclaimed there was always "one best way" to fix a problem.


In U.S. federal politics the most prominent figure was Herbert Hoover, a trained engineer. Democrats blamed the Great Depression on him and helped to somewhat discredit the movement, though the demand for efficiency and elimination of waste remains an important component of American values. John D. Rockefeller was also an avid supporter of the efficiency movement. In his many philanthropic pursuits, Rockefeller believed in supporting efficiency. He once said, "To help an inefficient, ill-located, unnecessary school is a waste...it is highly probable that enough money has been squandered on unwise educational projects to have built up a national system of higher education adequate to our needs, if the money had been properly directed to that end."[1]

Social surveys

The progressives undertook systematic surveys of the conditions of local government, with an eye to identifying inefficiency.

Relation to other movements

Later movements had echoes of the Efficiency Movement and were more directly inspired by Taylor and Taylorism. Technocracy, for instance, more of a fad than a movement, and others flourished in the 1930s and 1940s.

Postmodern opponents of nuclear energy in the 1970s broadened their attack to try to discredit movements that saw salvation for human society in technical expertise alone, or which held that scientists or engineers had any special expertise to offer in the political realm.


  1. Rockefeller, John D.; Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1933), [1]


  • Banta, Martha. Taylored Lives: Narrative Production in the Age of Taylor, Veblen, and Ford. U. of Chicago Press, 1993. 431 pp. excerpt and text search
  • Biggs, Lindy. The Rational Factory: Architecture, Technology and Work in America's Age of Mass Production (2002) excerpt and text search
  • Hays, Samuel P. "Conservation and the Gospel of Efficiency: The Progressive Conservation Movement 1890-1920". Harvard University Press, 1959.
  • Fry, Brian R. Mastering Public Administration: From Max Weber to Dwight Waldo (1989) online edition
  • Haber, Samuel. Efficiency and Uplift: Scientific Management in the Progressive Era, 1890-1920. (1964).
  • Jensen, Richard. "Democracy, Republicanism and Efficiency: The Values of American Politics, 1885-1930," in Byron Shafer and anthony Badger, eds, Contesting Democracy: Substance and Structure in American Political History, 1775-2000 (U of Kansas Press, 2001) pp 149-180; online version
  • Kanigel, Robert. The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency. (1997). excerpt and text search
  • Knoedler; Janet T. "Veblen and Technical Efficiency" in Journal of Economic Issues, Vol. 31, 1997
  • Jordan, John. Machine-Age Ideology (1994).
  • Lamoreaux, Naomi and Daniel M. G. Raft eds. Coordination and Information: Historical Perspectives on the Organization of Enterprise University of Chicago Press, 1995
  • Nelson, Daniel. Frederick W. Taylor and the Rise of Scientific Management The University of Wisconsin Press, 1980.
  • Nelson, Daniel. Managers and Workers: Origins of the Twentieth-Century Factory System in the United States, 1880-1920 2d ed. University of Wisconsin Press, 1995b.
  • Nelson, Daniel. A Mental Revolution: Scientific Management since Taylor (1990) online edition
  • Noble, David F. America by Design Oxford University Press, 1979.

Primary sources

  • Rockefeller, John D.; Random Reminiscences of Men and Events (1933) [2]
  • Taylor, Frederick Winslow, Scientific Management, edited by H.S. Person. (1947).

Primary sources: Social surveys

  • Aronovici, Carol. The Social Survey (1916)- 255 pages full text online
  • Gamble, Sidney David, ed. Peking: A Social Survey (1921) 514 pages; on the Chinese capital; full text online
  • Harrison, Shelby Millard, ed. The Springfield Survey: Study of Social Conditions in an American City (1920), famous study of the capital city of Illinois vol 3 online
  • Streightoff, Frances Doan. Indiana: A Social and Economic Survey (1916) full text online