Markets, Productivity, and Happiness in a Historical Perspective

Dutch efficiency engineers and their discontent with political economy, 1918-1952

Rodenburg Peter, University of Amsterdam

The interwar period of the 20th century saw the rise of a new kind of economic expertise: the ‘efficiency engineer’. After World War I, and under influence of the ideals of Progressive Era progressivism and the productivist promise of Frederick Taylors’ scientific management, efficiency engineers shifted their attention from solving purely technical problem to solving socio-economic problems. They stood for increasing the productive efficiency of firms and industries through ‘rationalization’: the application of rational methods for increasing output and reducing waste and costs. Over time they applied their ‘engineering methods’ to factories, businesses, organization, sectors of the economy and finally the national economy. In the process they transformed from engineers to efficiency experts, organizational experts, business economists, urban planners and macroeconomists. In the Netherlands efficiency engineers were trained the Delft Institute of Technology, the only higher education school in technology in The Netherlands up to 1956. Important representatives and spokesmen of the efficiency engineers movement in the Netherlands were Jan Goudriaan, Isaac Pieter de Vooys, Theo van der Waerden, Ernst Hijmans and Vincent Willem van Gogh. In their search for higher efficiency they were disappointed in economics as economic theory was too abstract and unpractical for guidance of their efficiency work. Therefore, they rejected the liberal political economy of Dutch mainstream economists in the 1920s and instead tried to develop their own new social science of ‘engineering economics’, which would lead to a more precise kind of economics that could direct engineers in their daily engineering work. Though several leading efficiency engineers were member of the Econometric Society Jan Tinbergens’ econometric work in the 1930s for a more mathematical and rigorous kind of economics was received with mixed support by efficiency engineers. This paper explores the discontent of Dutch efficiency engineers with mainstream liberal political economy in the Netherlands and the lukewarm reception of Tinbergens econometrics and how engineers tried to develop their science of ‘engineering economics’ as an alternative.

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Keywords: engineers, productivism, efficiency, technocratic expertise

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