Canada: as good as it gets

Bob Rae

Globe and Mail, Saturday May 19, 2001


      Peter Ustinov once described Toronto as New York run by the Swiss. This book, by a University of Toronto philosophy professor, may have an uninviting title, but is in fact a cogent, intelligent argument for balance in public policy. It could be described as vigorous mental floss. The arguments and examples are at once entertaining and thought-provoking, and the whole book has both elegance and punch.

      The strength of the book is the argument itself. Heath’s thesis is that the strength of Canadian public policy is its commitment, not to the ideologies of left or right, but to something else: a practical search for efficiency that respects markets and lets them work but does not worship them. Unlike those engaged in the vogue of neo-conservative thinking that has captured so much print space and the airwaves, Heath is not afraid to challenge the premise that the private sector is good and the public sector is bad. They each have their role to play, Heath argues, and it is simply the triumph of ideology over practical efficiency to deny the quality of public services and the need for public regulation.

      Heath’s point is that markets respond, among other things, to consumers’ demands or choice, quality and variety, yet there are many circumstances where people do not exercise choice in a way that produces the best, most efficient result. Drawing on a vast philosophical literature and much game theory, Heath demonstrates that there are many circumstances in life (traffic, for example) where each person pursuing short-term private interest will not produce the best public result. In a chapter that draws on Singapore’s use of smart taxes and differential road-pricing, and interesting experiments in Holland banning the use of passing lanes by big trucks, Heath clearly demonstrates that a more creative use of both markets and public regulation can help break gridlock and increase public safety. Canadian policy-makers at all levels of government should wake up and smell this coffee.

      The book takes some well known philosophical conundrums, such as the “prisoner’s dilemma” and applies them to common examples of self-destructive behaviour. This makes the book both entertaining and thought-provoking.

      At the same time, he reminds us that some key features of Canadian public life, like our health-care system, have strengths and advantages that are often overlooked in the ideological enthusiasm for markets and private enterprise. Canadians live longer than Americans; they are better covered by insurance and have more access to necessary medical services; the overhead costs of the system are far lower than in the United States. Americans spend billions on bureaucracies the purpose of which is to keep people away from medical professionals, to control access to medical facilities and to limit care. There is much talk about the prevalence of rationing in Canada. Heath rightly points out that there is far more evidence of limits to care in the United States. It’s just that the people denied care don’t turn up in statistics, and are rapidly losing their political voice.

      He also makes the compelling point, heard so rarely these days, that Oliver Wendell Holmes was right when he wrote that it was paying taxes that allowed him to buy a little piece of civilization. The notion that public goods have no value, and that people who pay higher taxes are necessarily worse off than those who pay less, are both rejected by Heath. He reminds us that it is absurd to compare tax rates in Canada and the United States and then conclude that Americans are necessarily better off. That all depends on the value we place on good public services. The water crisis in Walkerton, Ont. is the consequence of the thinking that says less spending makes us better off. Take the guts out of public services, Heath says, and you may increase the wealth of some. But it is entirely possible that valuable efficiencies will be lost, that the economy will work less well, and that in the end we could be worse off – not in some vague sense of moral deprivation, but in very real terms.

      The courage of The Efficient Society is that is challenges the shibboleths of the old left, too. Here Heath is traveling well charted territory, but he does it well. The search for perfectibility, which has been such a key feature of classical socialist thinking since the Enlightenment, has a problem at its very core: It ignores the simple fact that people who live differently think differently. By posing various models of the “good society” as common objectives, the left confuses rowing with steering, and insists on public institutions doing both. The result is at best bureaucratic, at worse statist and, at the extreme, tyrannical.

      Edmund Burke reminded us that there is no worse tyranny than government in the name of a theory. In this regard, the common-sense revolutionaries of the right are no better than their historical counterparts on the left. Following Francis Fukuyama and other theorists of civil society, Heath argues that liberal democracy is “as good as it gets,” and that sensible public policy accepts both the role and limits of politics.

      Is Joseph Heath’s book as good as it gets? His point is not that Canada is a utopia, but that our political culture has the advantage of accepting the role of markets, public services and the need for regulation to overcome the tendency of capitalism to drive the race to the bottom. This praise of the Canadian way always runs the risk of complacency, and of accepting too easily the sense that all is best in the best of possible worlds. Heath has to be careful not to appear to be campaigning for a seat in the Liberal Senate.

      Nor will all readers be equally entertained by each chapter or even each example. This is not a light read, in the sense that Heath is making an argument that has to be followed and analyzed. But for a philosophy professor to write a book that breaks out of the turgidities of the academy, and at the same time to engage in serious public argument about issues that matter deeply to us – and to do so in a manner that is neither condescending, trivial nor impenetrable – is a notable achievement. Heath is engaging us, and taking us seriously without being pompous. He deserves to be read.


 Bob Rae was the 21st premier of Ontario, and is the author of The Three Questions.