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