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The Efficient Society: Why Canada Is As Close To Utopia As It Gets Paperback – May 21 2002

3.3 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Canada (May 21 2002)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140292489
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140292480
  • Product Dimensions: 2.5 x 14 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 295 g
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars 4 customer reviews
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #434,864 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Product Description

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Every year the United Nations ranks countries according to their standards of living in the world. Almost invariably, Canada comes up in the top spot, leaving cynical Canadians to wonder, What the heck? In The Efficient Society, self-described "professional philosopher" Joseph Heath goes a long way toward providing the answer. While certainly Canada is deficient in many areas, he notes, the country's overall operational efficiency is what boosts it to the top of the standard-of-living index. Drawing on social contract theory, on the conundrum known as "the prisoner's dilemma" (wherein two or more people acting purely in self-interest results in worst-case scenarios for everyone), and examples from pop culture sources such as Star Trek, American Beauty, and books by cyberpunk novelists Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson, Heath sheds light on why societies function the way they do, and how this affects their citizens. For instance, it's the author's contention that the U.S.'s determined quest for liberty curbs that country's ability to serve its citizens effectively. "The most serious inefficiencies in American society come from people's unwillingness to pay taxes (on the grounds that taxes interfere with individual liberty)," surmises Heath. "This is what produces the well-known 'private opulence, public squalour' that characterizes American cities."

Heath's main contention is that Canadians' willingness to let the government step in and maintain programs for "the public good" is what basically sets the country apart. On the issue of gun control, for instance, he says that the argument for bearing arms "may sound persuasive, but it misses the point.... The benefits come from knowing that other people don't have guns. Thus the outcome that everyone wants--a safer society--cannot be achieved through the exercise of individual rights. It can be achieved only if everyone is denied certain rights." But Heath is no ideologue--he criticizes both the right and the left, and it's unlikely anti-globalization crusaders will be putting this book up on the shelf next to Naomi Klein's No Logo after reading his defence of Wal-Mart and Nike. That said, Heath isn't entirely in favour of the status quo either. He notes how "the proliferation of desire" (as fanned by advertising) is the "reason you can't get no satisfaction." Nevertheless, The Efficient Society is a fairly convincing argument that Canada is, in the words of the book's subtitle, "as close to utopia as it gets." --Shawn Conner --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

About the Author

Joseph Heath is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto. He holds a BA from McGill and a PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University. In 1998, he was the Olmsted Visiting Scholar in ethics, politics, and economics at Yale. His latest book is The Efficient Society: Why Canada Is as Close to Utopia as It Gets.


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3.3 out of 5 stars
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Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on Feb. 27 2006
Format: Paperback
One of the reviews here lays into this book for stretching a 30 page idea out into 300 pages. The reviewer has a point in one respect only, viz that the title might make one think that the book is going to focus almost exclusively on Canada. In fact, it feels more like a collection of essays that a publisher recommended needed to be linked by some grand unifying theme. Leaving aside the fact that the Canada vs USA thing *is* of relevance in many of these chapters, the crucial thing is that EACH CHAPTER IS EXTREMELY INTERESTING AND THOUGHT-PROVOKING. To call the book "the half-baked musings of a junior philosophy lecturer" is grossly unfair, and smacks of self-aggrandizing posturing. Heath's points are cogent, coherent and plausible. He takes the reader on a tour de horizon of various aspects of government, business and social policy that is very interesting to the layman. If you want to compare this book to some heavyweight university textbooks on economics, you're applying the wrong framework of analysis and run the risk of looking foolish and self-indulgent. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.
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Format: Paperback
Another essay/book that concentrates on the hackneyed Canada vs US fraternal rivalry...As if MacLeans and many other magazines and newspapers and other media did not cater to this obsession almost daily with their lists and comparisons...
Moreover, focusing on the comparison with one country and using the UN ratings for all the others is not only not profound but quite the opposite. What about Canada vs. Europe, China, India - it seems as if for the author these societies are not even options. Why ? Perhaps because he does not know what it is like to live there? And if that is the case - is this a good basis for such a book ?

Having moved to Canada from Europe recently I distinctly remember my feeling of being transported back in time about 20 years, into the European 1980s - when issues like the right measure of taxation, the economic importance of public transport, the re-vitalisation of inner cities, culture as a factor of economical development, not to speak of ecological responsibility etc that I grew up with as a teenager and that have since led to a large societal consensus one way or the other in countries like Germany, Austria, Switzerland etc. are still in the very first stages of debate here in Canada. Granted, the US are even more backwards in many of these, but is that always the only "other" society in the world ?

And as to the title: living in Canada has provided me with insights about inefficiencies in administration and societal discourse that I would not have thought possible in a "first world country". Canada, in my view, is not an efficient society compared to others (again, Japan, China and Germany come to mind).

And why would efficiency be equated with utopia, anyway? Where is the link ?
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Format: Hardcover
I recently read THE EFFICIENT SOCIETY, at the advice of a friend. The introduction and conclusion present the central ideas of the book: i.e., that Canada is much better off than most Canadians think, because we efficiently make the best of a combination of market economics and government programs. None of these, in itself, is perfect or ideal; but the coombination is the best mix that we can get at this time, yielding a high quality of life (ranked no. 1 for many years in UN rankings, and close to the top in the last year or so (I wrote this in Feb. 2003).
The problem is that all of this, with a few key illustrative examples, fits into 20-30 pages. The book is close to 300 pages. The author has written an excellent essay, with a provocative idea; he should have kept it to an essay. Instead, he has padded it out to a book. Much of this book details simplistic or pedantic presentations of "general ideas" about key concepts (e.g., a tedious chapter on the history of efficiency that regurgitates boiler plate bits about Aristotle, Taylor and Gilbreth the early efficiency experts, and a badly potted synopsis of Vilfredo Pareto. In effect, 250 pages or so represent badly prepared tidbits or hors d'ouevres that sound very much like the half-baked musings of a junior philosophy lecturer.
Little more is written to tell us more about the Canadian situation. Much is left out: nothing on foreign relations, not much on export markets or economic relations with other countries, particularly the U.S., nothing about the froth (the play on anti-Americanism, the play on Federalism and natioanl unity) that passes for political thinking and strategic poicy thrusts in this country.
.
Read the intro and conclusion of this book, get a general idea of its main argument, check the index, and then read up on some of the details yourself.
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Format: Hardcover
This book gives a quick overview of Canadian values, and summarizes the perspective of a new type of society emerging in Canada. The concept of a society built not around liberty or equality, but rather, just making as many people happy as possible.
An excellent addition to my collection.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: HASH(0xa376caf8) out of 5 stars 11 reviews
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa32f3c60) out of 5 stars Everyone should read this book Sept. 25 2007
By Lee - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback
This is the only book I have ever read that I could truly say imposed a radical change on my political beliefs. The brilliance of this book is that it takes a very simple idea and demonstrates how it applies to so many distinct areas of modern political dispute, all the while undercutting most of the traditional political debates, and by doing so makes you wonder "why hadn't I thought that way about it before?"

The idea in question is that of the "collective action problem". In essence this is a situation where if everyone acts according to their own self interest, everyone ends up worse off than they would have been if they had accepted a compromise instead. Collective action problems cause inefficiencies, hence the title of the book. Heath's point is that a great many of the institutions in our societies can be explained, and more importantly justified, as means for avoiding falling into collective action problems.

So rather than thinking of a social welfare system or a public health care system as justified on moral grounds (equality, fairness), we should really see these institutions for what they are: means of promoting efficiency by avoiding collective action problems. In other words, what we tend to pay for through coercive taxation are things that, if we were left to pay for individually through the free market, would cause collective action problems and result in inefficiencies and wastage. So far from being a justification for heartless exploitation, it turns out that efficiency is a moral value that is central to our lives and institutions, and most importantly can be used to justify many government programs.

So if you ever wondered whether those people who claim that government is necessarily inefficient were right, Heath's book will prove to you beyond all shadow of doubt that they are mistaken and that government is in fact the central efficiency promoting institution in the modern world.
23 of 29 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa32f3cb4) out of 5 stars An inefficient book, about one big idea. Feb. 23 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
I recently read THE EFFICIENT SOCIETY, at the advice of a friend. The introduction and conclusion present the central ideas of the book: i.e., that Canada is much better off than most Canadians think, because we efficiently make the best of a combination of market economics and government programs. None of these, in itself, is perfect or ideal; but the coombination is the best mix that we can get at this time, yielding a high quality of life (ranked no. 1 for many years in UN rankings, and close to the top in the last year or so (I wrote this in Feb. 2003).
The problem is that all of this, with a few key illustrative examples, fits into 20-30 pages. The book is close to 300 pages. The author has written an excellent essay, with a provocative idea; he should have kept it to an essay. Instead, he has padded it out to a book. Much of this book details simplistic or pedantic presentations of "general ideas" about key concepts (e.g., a tedious chapter on the history of efficiency that regurgitates boiler plate bits about Aristotle, Taylor and Gilbreth the early efficiency experts, and a badly potted synopsis of Vilfredo Pareto. In effect, 250 pages or so represent badly prepared tidbits or hors d'ouevres that sound very much like the half-baked musings of a junior philosophy lecturer.
Little more is written to tell us more about the Canadian situation. Much is left out: nothing on foreign relations, not much on export markets or economic relations with other countries, particularly the U.S., nothing about the froth (the play on anti-Americanism, the play on Federalism and natioanl unity) that passes for political thinking and strategic poicy thrusts in this country.
.
Read the intro and conclusion of this book, get a general idea of its main argument, check the index, and then read up on some of the details yourself.
9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa32f3e88) out of 5 stars Excellent overview of Canadian "values" Nov. 11 2003
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Hardcover
This book gives a quick overview of Canadian values, and summarizes the perspective of a new type of society emerging in Canada. The concept of a society built not around liberty or equality, but rather, just making as many people happy as possible.
An excellent addition to my collection.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
HASH(0xa32f73cc) out of 5 stars Only book I've ever read twice! Sept. 3 2010
By Muzz000 - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
This is one of the best books I've ever read, and the only book I've ever been moved to write an Amazon review for.

As the first reviewer said, it's really not about Canada. It's really about economics. It explains economics in a way that a bright non-economist can understand, and does so from a non-market-fundamentalist perspective. It's a primer for why and how the free market works, and those few places that it doesn't.

It sounds mundane, but it's amazing.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough!
HASH(0xa32f3c3c) out of 5 stars The Dynamic Equilibrium of an "Efficient Society" March 25 2012
By Baraniecki Mark Stuart - Published on Amazon.com
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Joseph Heath is a philosopher but "The Efficient Society" is really a landmark text in modern Political Economics.

He takes an admirably unbiased look at the economics and politics of modern western societies using a benchmark of "Efficiency" - being forms of organization that increase the wellbeing of citizens in a country rather than the more usual measure of per capita GDP.

As he quite rightly points out, Canada has a lower per capita GDP than the United States but a higher level of wellbeing as shown by surveys, health and other social statistics. The GDP measure itself is shown to be faulty with the classic example being US healthcare that costs twice the amount of equivalent European systems while producing a less health population. At least half of US healthcare spending (component of GDP) is a complete waste of money.

An "Efficiency" view of politics/economics has to conclude that markets are best suited to efficiently provide some goods, and governments best suited to provide others. The standard example of government intervention is pollution that isn't an easy fit in a tradeable market. It is simply more efficient to pass laws against pollution, in a similar way to laws against crime, given the general acceptance in efficient societies that crime is not a tradable activity (although in corrupt inefficient societies this is not nearly so clear).

Following the same line, Heath sees well run government and private bureaucracies as essential to an efficient society. When things reach a certain level of complexity, a centrally controlled division of labour is essential to avoid chaos. How would Boeing build aircraft if every production unit had to trade with the others to obtain parts and information?

This is not to say that the efficiency generated by free markets is popular or comfortable. On the contrary, free market competition is generally disliked and feared. Socialists see it as breaking the "togetherness" of society by generating the inequality of winners and losers, and from a different angle, the traditional administrative Guardians of society never liked "trade" in the first place, since they see it as diminishing virtue. Heath actually quotes Nietzsche, (in the marketplace) "They punish you for all your virtues. They forgive you entirely - your mistakes."

He equally shows that free markets are in no way natural, and that in the advanced form in which they are found in Western societies, they rest on the careful legal construction of individual property rights and the civil law of contract. These laws have to be framed and protected by government and "Efficiency" requires this unnatural state of affairs be shielded against the natural desire of special interests to subvert the political/economic rules for their own advantage (best book on this is Olson's, "Power and Prosperity. Outgrowing Communist and Capitalistic Dictatorships).

He touches on some secular market trends such as increased automation where increased automation = fewer employees = increased private profit , while unemployment costs are dumped on society ( good book here is Ford's, The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future), and the inevitability of market competition leading a "race to the bottom" in production costs which means offshore - once again a sellout of society from a traditional/nationalist or socialist viewpoint.

Heath finally sees a careful welfare state capitalism as the best organization for an "Efficient" society.

A minor point is a tangential attack on Ayn Rand as an exponent of savage capitalism, although on my reading (of "Atlas Shrugged") she is really taking aim at extreme state socialism/communism rather than glorifying entrepreneurs. There is a Nietzschean over man aspect to her heroes ( as Heath points out) but the real target seems to be Nietzsche's "ressentiment" exemplified by the dead hand of state socialism.


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