The Efficient Society, Joseph Heath

Penguin Canada, 2002 reprint of 2001 original, 339 pages, C$22.00, ISBN 0-14-029248-0

From time to time, I find myself wishing that I’d read some books earlier.  Part of it is a reflection on my stack of things to read: Even if I completely stopped buying books right now, I would still have about two years’ worth of stuff to read.  Part of it is the vertiginous realisation that the universe of good books is vast, and there are still thousands of them to read.  The Efficient Society is one of those; a book that, in 2001, first brought philosophy professor Joseph Heath to national attention.  Heath would go on to write The Rebel Sell with Andrew Potter, which is the book that made me realize that I should be reading more of Heath/Potter’s work.  Going back in time to The Efficient Society, I end up cursing myself for not reading it ten years ago.

The basic thesis (“Why Canada is as close to Utopia as it gets”) is that our country is one of the best in the world largely because of its pragmatic efficiency.  This may be surprizing, even worrying to some: after all, most people frown at least a little when “efficiency” is praised.  Trained by decades of cost-cutting exercises presented as the epitome of efficiency, all-too-aware that “efficient” usually means cutting away the extras, fat, lubrication and slack time that make life worthwhile, readers may be forgiven for not being entirely well-disposed toward the notion of “an efficient society”.  But Heath isn’t using the word in that sense.  In his mind, efficiency means finding the best way of co-existing, the best way to deliver services, the best way to live.  It means not caring about the proclivities of other people (because being nosy is inefficient), finding a balance between private and public service delivery (because ideological approaches are usually wasteful) and understanding how social forces compel us toward common lifestyle decisions (because society works like that, and understanding why is the first step toward changing it).

As a philosophy professor, Heath is well-equipped to vulgarized grand ideas.  For instance, in the section of the book which concerns itself with moral efficiency, he proposes that old-fashioned morality is based on an ideal of human perfection.  Living up to these expectation is practically impossible; hence, the more efficient idea of tolerance; as long as others aren’t actively interfering in our lives, as long as everyone’s actions aren’t harming others, what’s the point of measuring others against an ideal that is impossible to reach?

The book is on even firmer ground in discussing economics and efficiency.  Canada, argues Heath, has found an ideal balance between European pro-state and American pro-business ideologies.  The United States, after all, seems perfectly happy wasting a few percentage points of GDP to health care billing services that a single-payer model doesn’t even need.  Europe, on the other thand, wastes GDP points by over-nationalizing businesses that should be handled by the private sector.  This efficient Canadian equilibrium between the state and private enterprise is to everyone’s benefit.  Many other examples abound, exploring the delicate interaction of the market in its modern, efficient form.  Eventually, the narrative becomes an argument for improving the status quo rather than burning everything down –a theme that Heath carries through to The Rebel Sell.

From this promising start, The Efficient Society wanders a bit during a last third notionally dedicated to social efficiency: While there are a few striking passages –the deconstruction of typical gender roles in couples raising young children seems particularly implacable- the book seems to become an anthology of Health’s ideas without much of a guiding theme to carry it along.  It’s also in this segment that The Efficient Society most clearly shows its age.  The technological references are obviously a decade old, and developments since then (particularly in democratization of web publishing, and the increasing universality of web access devices.) would be interesting to study through the efficiency prism.

Still, The Efficient Society easily contains more thought-provoking material than most other non-fiction books of its length.  Heath interrogates economics from a philosophical viewpoint (a left-wing one, albeit a more sophisticated left-wing perspective than the activist fringe) and the rest of his investigation can be just as revealing as any of the Freakonomics-style books that have been published since then.  I wish I’d read this book upon publication; maybe the world would have made a bit more sense.

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