Something Stephen Harper said during his recent tour of Atlantic Canada bothers me.
Here is a paraphrase of what he said. The Liberals are saying this is as good as it gets. But conservatives say the best is yet to come.
Here is what bothers me.
First, what Harper said is inaccurate.
To my knowledge, Liberals have never boasted that the Liberal government has made Canada “as good as it gets.”
This brings me to my second point.
Harper’s election promise that the best is yet to come is improbable, at best, disingenuous for sure.
So, you are probably asking yourself, if the Conservatives cannot make Canada better than it already is, then the statement that Harper attributes to the liberals, that they believe Canada is as good as it gets must be true.
It’s more complex than this.
In fact, ascertaining Canada’s political and economic health and stability calls into question a whole range of difficult issues.
I turn to Joseph Heath, Canada Research chair in Ethics and Political Economy at Université de Montréal for help on this one.
His latest book, The Efficient Society: Why Canada is as Close to Utopia as it Gets, is not an easy read, but it is worth wrestling with.
He presents a rather persuasive case for the whole notion that, right now, we Canadians need not expect any substantial improvement in either our politics or our economy.
Heath’s open line: “Canadians currently enjoy the highest quality of life on the planet.”
How so, you might be asking yourself?
According to Heath, we are living high right now not because we are rich, endowed with plenty of natural resources, or because we are a relatively just society.
What keeps us right up there at the top of the heap year after year is the fact we are an “efficient society.”
Heath informs us we “run a tight ship. We get maximum results while minimizing effort and waste.”
However, he maintains, “Canadians unfortunately have a hard time believing” we are doing so well.
I can see why.
Listening to Harper, Martin, Layton, the Greens and the Bloc slug it out with one another, one could assume Canada is near the bottom of the barrel and sinking fast.
Martin tries hard to convince us that Conservatives will ruin the welfare state and foolishly open the floodgates to rampant Americanization of everything from flag to farm products.
Harper’s drumbeat is this constant banging away on rampant Liberal socialization, which, he insists, is covertly financed by an unfair and artificial taxation system.
Layton would have us believe sponsorship scandals, carried on by dishonest Liberals, and warmongering, trumpeted by the Conservative Party, are somehow responsible for melting the polar ice caps.
Duceppe has his followers convinced the only way to bring Canadians together is by cutting Canada right down the middle.
And Jim Harris embellishes us with a textbook example of “reductio ad absurdum.”
To think globally while acting locally is a wonderful fairy tale. Put simply, most of us are still working hard to figure out how to think effectively, compassionately and realistically within the sphere of our own neighbourhoods.
Hearing this political dissention weighs heavy on one’s soul.
Therefore, Heath’s utopian optimism might be just the breath of fresh air and rationality we could all use right now.
What should we make of the fact that Canada is a highly efficient country sitting pretty among the other nations in the world?
And have we really gained the right to be feeling so good about ourselves that we feel justified in strutting about with our heads in the air?
Here is a line or two from the Efficient Society.
“In 1995, the Canadian government spent approximately 6.9 per cent of the Canadian GDP (gross domestic product) on health care. With that money, it provided health services to all Canadians.
“In the same year, the American government spent 6.6 per cent of the American GDP on health care. With that money, it provided health services to less than 30 per cent of Americans.
“And yet in spite of lower total health-care spending, Canadians are, on average, healthier than Americans. Part of the reason may be that the Canadian health-care system actually delivers a greater quantity of physician services per capita than the American.
“One of the major reasons that Americans get so little bang for the buck is that private health insurance generates massive overhead costs.
“Approximately half of the difference in health-care spending between Canada and the United States can be attributed to the giant bureaucracy that is required to keep track of and process all the different claims in the United States.
“As a result, every year Americans throw away more than two per cent of their GDP on useless health-care bureaucracy.
“An estimated 1.4 million Americans are employed doing completely unnecessary administrative jobs in the health-care sector. These people could be doing something a lot more useful.”
Citing the efficiency of the Canadian health-care system over and above that of our border mate is just one example Heath cites to give us reason to believe we Canadians are doing pretty well.
According to Heath, “What the Canadian system succeeds at doing is delivering a broad range of goods, services, and benefits that people want — not only cars and houses, but also personal security and freedom from crime, a clean environment, and livable cities.
“The reason we’re able to deliver a balanced package of this sort is that we use a combination of organizational forms — not only markets, but also large corporations and governments. Each type of organization makes its own contribution to our overall quality of life.”
Heath builds his case at the expense of both the traditional left and the right:
“In its defense of the role of the public sector, the left consistently appeals to the principle of fairness or equality — rather than efficiency — as the underlying rationale.
“This is fine as far as it goes, but it tends to perpetuate the myth that government acts as a drag on the economy.
“In fact, government is the source of huge gains in efficiency.
“Much of the quality of life, enjoyed by rich and poor alike in this country, is provided by government. The much-vaulted ‘social safety net,’ for instance, can just as easily be defined by appealing to the principle of efficiency as it can by appealing to fairness.”
Heath is right.
Canada is an efficient society and we are doing well because of it.
It is certainly in our own best interest, particularly during the election season, to keep this in mind.
We may not yet be able to say this is as good as it gets. There is always room for improvement.
But then again, we should not expect to experience — nor do we need to, according to Heath — a rush of political or economic innovation no matter who wins this election.