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The Efficient Society: Why Canada Is as Close to Utopia as It Gets

by Joseph Heath

According to the old refrain of the Canadian right, Americans are simply wealthier and happier than we are; if Canadians could visualize the comparison, our welfare state would be a bloated white elephant next to the gleaming spectacle of American markets and enterprise.

Enter Joseph Heath, a University of Toronto philosophy professor determined to salvage Canadian self-esteem. Rather than resort to platitudes about Canadian “kindness,” Heath has decided to use the conservative vocabulary of “markets” and “efficiency” in order to undermine the position of the left and the right at the same time. Canada, he concludes, is the most “efficient” society because its government provides goods and services when it can do so more efficiently and cost-effectively than the market but steps back whenever Canadians are better served by the market mechanism.

Heath’s careful analysis of the Canadian health care system in comparison to the American model provides a powerful argument against those who decry government-run institutions as “inefficient.” The section on health care, however, comes after many theory-laden pages dedicated to definitions of efficiency theory and arguing why being efficient matters. Furthermore, when Heath attempts to simplify efficiency theory for lay readers, he eschews analogy and concrete examples for heavy-handed clarifications, such as describing an unfortunate scenario as a “bad thing.”

Where the utopia from the subtitle lies in all of this is anybody’s guess, since utopia necessarily refers to an ideal end, and a purely efficient society would have little to say about what those ends should be. In this way, efficiency theory manages to explain everything and nothing at the same time, which is, to borrow from the author’s vocabulary, a “bad thing.”