November 12, 2005
Michael Walker’s desk in his new office at the Fraser Institute is crammed between the door, a window and a ceiling so low that red tags flutter from overhead sprinklers, warning him not to bash his head. Yet he has taken some space to prop up a large portrait on the floor just inches from his chair. It’s a stodgy youngster with bright red hair, a pug nose and a smoke in his hand.
“It’s a joke,” laughs Mr. Walker, who bought the Jennifer Bell painting, a spoof on Thomas Gainsborough’s famous Blue Boy, on impulse. “He’s an impudent little bugger. . . . I was impudent, feisty with teachers, always questioning, and I started smoking when I was 9.”
Critics and fans of Mr. Walker would agree that he’s still impudent, feisty and questioning. (He has quit smoking.) As a founder and the executive director of the Fraser Institute think-tank for more than three decades, he looms over Canadian public policy as a larger-than-life symbol of neo-conservatism.
Mr. Walker has helped to spearhead Canadian policy trends such as balanced government budgets, curtailed public spending, privatized crown corporations and ongoing attempts to privatize health care. He is also gaining an international reputation for starting, with U.S. free-market economics guru Milton Friedman, annual global reports that rate countries’ degrees of “economic freedom.”
His positions, and the Fraser Institute’s, are contentious, to say the least: If climate change exists, it will help Canada; the risk of second-hand smoke is overblown; there should be almost no government intervention in the economy; and marijuana should be legalized and taxed.
He is even a contrarian on democracy, claiming peace is more closely linked with free markets. Shuffling piles of paper and books to let his visitor rest a coffee cup on his desk, he refers to studies showing that “democracy produces more interstate disputes.”
His critics are incensed by his supreme confidence in his views. The Roman Empire, he declares in an interview, collapsed simply because “they didn’t discover [economic]freedom.” In short, the free market cures all ills.
Few Canadians incite such extremes of rage or admiration. He’s being bombarded with laurels and darts as he eases into retirement at the age of 60, beginning with his change of offices in September, and next a Nov. 15 roast featuring national luminaries of the right.
Preston Manning will publicly laud Mr. Walker at the $175-per-plate gala, along with admirers such as Financial Post editor Terence Corcoran, former Ontario premier Mike Harris, Western Standard editor Ezra Levant, health-care privatization advocate Brian Day and the emcees, columnist Gordon Gibson and broadcaster Danielle Smith.
“Michael is just a living testament to the power of ideas and perseverance,” says Mr. Manning, founder of the Reform Party, which evolved into today’s Conservative Party. “It’s almost impossible to estimate how much influence he’s had on public policy in Canada.”
But Seth Klein retorts that he’s “a hard-core ideologue.” Mr. Klein, the brother of activist icon Naomi Klein, is the B.C. director of the left-wing Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
Mr. Walker is also unoriginal, economist Jim Stanford of the Canadian Autoworkers union says dismissively. “He was very clever in finding ways to get his message across, but there was nothing unique in his theories.”
And yet nobody condemns Mr. Walker personally. “I don’t want to sound too negative — he’s a very nice person,” Mr. Stanford says. “His arguments are wrong and his approach is simplistic, but I’ve always found him an honourable debating opponent.”
Even former British Columbia premier Dave Barrett, whose NDP government the Fraser Institute helped to defeat in the 1970s, tempers his ire. “Their propaganda is disguised as a think-tank — and is, in the lexicon of many, the ‘stink-tank.’ But other than that, he’s a nice fellow.”
“He’s a shit disturber, that’s what Michael is,” says Dalhousie University economist James McNiven. Prof. McNiven was head of the Atlantic Provinces Economic Council in the 1970s when he first met Mr. Walker, who was bringing radical libertarian ideas to conferences. “In a democracy, it’s a good thing. . . . Those people keep other people on their toes and, in their own ways, change how the world works.”
And that is exactly what Mr. Walker lays out as his life’s goal: “My mission has been . . . to change the world, to change the climate of opinion about the role and power of markets in making lives of people better. To realize: How does our wealth get generated, and how are our cultural opportunities made available to us, and what are the things we take for granted?”
Mr. Walker learned to fight early on. He was born in 1945 into a Catholic family in Corner Brook to a stay-at-home mother (who was trained as a teacher) and a father who worked at the local paper mill. The town was divvied up into religious sections, with children fiercely defending their fiefdoms. “We had to pass through the ‘Orange’ part of town, and fought our way to school and back every day. . . . Sometimes I remember being afraid, but it was just part of growing up in Newfoundland.”
The family was not well-off, but there was always food on the table. Their late father was a union leader who set up a co-operative coal outlet as well as a credit union to help the community. (Mr. Walker has set up a union scholarship in his name.)
All three Walker siblings excelled in school: His sister was briefly a nun before becoming a physician, while his brother recently retired as an Ontario school administrator. They remain close.
Mr. Walker went to St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, intending to study history. “I had to take an economics course, and it was love at first sight.” He remembered how his father’s enterprises (left-wing though they were) helped the community, pondered why so many of his schoolmates had no socks or lunch, and fitted such issues into Newfoundland’s troubled economy. “All these things gelled, and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s how it works.’ “
But it still would be a while before Mr. Walker became convinced that Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” would solve such woes.
He won a Woodrow Wilson scholarship and was offered several Ivy League placements, but chose to attend the University of Western Ontario, where he could finish in one year. Then, with a master’s degree (and the basis of his PhD) in hand, he was hired by the Bank of Canada as an econometrician, believing he would help fine-tune the Canadian economy.
“I went to the bank thinking I could fiddle dials, change tax rates, figure out the optimum way to eliminate higher unemployment and get higher growth,” he recalls, shaking his head. “I was very idealistic, and I really didn’t know anything about the philosophical implications.”
He didn’t last long in Ottawa. One day, he asked a colleague who wanted to increase taxes on large automobiles, “Why should we be screwing around with peoples lives?” The response was, “If you don’t believe in screwing around with people’s lives, what are you doing in Ottawa?”
It prompted an epiphany. Mr. Walker rethought his views on econometrics, began reading more widely and soon, at 28, moved to Vancouver, where in 1974 he was hired to help found the business-financed Fraser Institute and counter what he saw as the trend toward socialism.
At the time, Prof. McNiven recalls, Canada was so tightly regulated that the government decreed what size of sandwiches airlines fed passengers. “There was the whole problem of stagflation, with high unemployment . . . and there were wage and price controls. It was not exactly a time to write home about.”
Mr. Walker promoted free-market perspectives long before they were popularized by politicians such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. “The world has changed course,” Prof. McNiven says. “It’s now accepted there are limits to what, financially, the state can do.”
At the same time, Mr. Walker discovered he had a gift for communication. “He takes facts and figures, lines them up, presents them to the public in way they can understand, and holds officials accountable,” Prof. McNiven says. “If there’s another group that doesn’t like the way he adds up the numbers, they should add them up differently and have a debate.”
(In fact, his opponents have learned to do so. The Council for Policy Alternatives produces an alternative budget, while Mr. Stanford has created a counter to Mr. Walker’s freedom index, called “Economic Freedom for the Rest of Us,” which instead of markets measures freedom from poverty, coercion, unemployment and discrimination.)
Mr. Manning credits Mr. Walker with many of the assumptions Canadians take for granted today, such as the benefits of balancing a government budget. “He established the fact that idea-based research is relevant to public policy, and the notion that ideas have to be backed by sound research and measurement.”
To change public opinion, Mr. Walker has tread ground most others avoid. Alone among voices of the right, he agreed to be interviewed for The Corporation, a provocative documentary attacking the impact of multinational corporations on society. “If people saw the world as I do . . . they’d arrest the people who did [the movie]for criminal negligence causing death, because of the power of corporations to solve the problems of the world,” he says now.
Such provocative Walkerisms won’t entirely vanish when he retires. As senior research fellow and president of the Fraser Foundation, he will globetrot promoting the economic-freedom index. Meanwhile, he hopes that by leaving gradually and staying nearby, he will ease the transition for his replacement, Mark Mullins, a former chief economist, columnist and Conservative Party policy adviser.
Mr. Walker also hopes to spend more time with his wife — a professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia — his son in Calgary and his daughter in Seattle, her husband and their two young children, whose pictures are displayed proudly on Mr. Walker’s computer desktop.
He says he might play tennis more than his current daily 6 a.m. game near his West Vancouver home, wants to perfect his wind-surfing techniques, and has a stack of reading to get through, including Collapse, an apocalyptic environmental study of how societies fail, by Jared Diamond.
“I’m not retiring. I am seizing an opportunity,” Mr. Walker says. And should the Fraser Institute need him to return, he says he’s good for another “vigorous” five years.
Copyright Deborah Jones 2005
This story was originally published in the Toronto Globe and Mail.
Walker’s greatest hits:
Michael Walker’s motto is, “If it matters, measure it.” He and the Fraser Institute have influenced public policy by promoting:
Calculations of “tax freedom day” throughout Canada.
Privatization of nationalized assets (CN, Petro-Canada).
Privatization of the delivery of government services.
Reduction of the overall role of government in the economy.
Reduction of “red tape”.
Measurement of provincial education performance with “report cards”.
Measurement of hospital waiting lists.
Measurement of government “interference” to rank “economic freedom” in 127 countries.
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