Spotlight: Canadian Walker Makes Market Talk


Canada is just to the north of the continental United States; its government, just to the left. In Canada, as in the United States, government is the occupation of a minority who enjoy the profession and does not necessarily reflect the views of the citizenry. The federal and provincial governments of Canada have managed to gain control over practically every aspect of Canadians' lives. Agriculture, medical care, housing, and banking are even more under the bureaucratic thumb in the land of the maple leaf than next door in the USA. And the government is aggressively encouraging nationalism, moving to rid Canada of foreign business interests as well as American television shows. But Dr. Michael Walker thinks that the Canadian people are beginning to assert their own individual sovereignties.

Michael Walker was born in Newfoundland to a man who went to work in the coal mines of Nova Scotia when he was orphaned at the age of 14. Walker says that his father decided after five years in the mines that "if they had to blindfold horses to get them into the mines, they were no place for him."

Young Michael went on to college, and it was in econometrics and monetary theory that he excelled. He earned his doctorate at the University of Western Ontario, where he worked on the cutting edge of econometric research. (For our readers who are not familiar with econometrics, it is a mathematical branch of economics using high-powered statistical methods to measure and analyze economic relationships.)

Walker was caught up in the general enthusiasm of the period. "It was believed," he says in retrospect, "that with a mathematical model of the economy, government could fine tune all the social problems out." Armed with his considerable econometric skills, he went to work for the federal Bank of Canada and later as a consultant to the Policy Branch of the federal Department of Finance.

Somewhere along the line, though, Walker began to lose faith in the very idea of mathematically controlling the multitudes of individuals who make up "the economy." He rejected his "mechanistic" views of the economy, instead coming to see it as an "organic" system. He was ready when a former classmate, Csaba Hajdu, approached him in 1974 about the possibility of setting up an organization meant to counter the liberal economic ideas that have held sway in Canada since the election of the Trudeau government in 1968.

Along with economists Sally Pipes and John Raybould, Walker formed the Fraser Institute in 1975, with Walker as director. A group of businessmen put up the initial funds for the institute, and he managed to convince them that intellectual husbandry yields greater benefit than direct political involvement. The decision was made to locate the think-tank in Vancouver, British Columbia—far away from Ottawa, the Canadian version of Washington, D.C. As the institute has grown in prestige and influence, the Canadian government has several times offered to put the organization on the dole, but Walker has always refused tax monies because they are not strings-free.

As Walker and the group mapped out a strategy for attacking Canadian statism, they were blessed by a visit from Antony Fisher, England's foremost free-market spokesman and himself the founder of London's Institute of Economic Affairs. Having overcome obstacles similar to those facing the fledgling Fraser Institute, Fisher was able to offer expert guidance. "He knew more about our problems then we did," Walker says. Fisher also introduced many of his own large Canadian financial contributors to the Fraser Institute. Today, the institute is operating on about $600,000 a year and has registered as a nonprofit foundation in the United States.

As the free-market philosophy has gained in international respectability, Walker has come to represent it in Canada. He spends most of his time now giving speeches and his opinion to those who ask for it and has come to be called the "Milton Friedman of Canada." He does not sound exactly like the Chicago monetarist, though. He gives away his Canadian roots when he talks about the joys of getting his hands greasy and working on his 280 "Zed" or getting government "aoot" of the marketplace.

Much of the success of the Fraser Institute has come "abaoot" through its 25 published books. It has pulled off a minor miracle with six Canadian bestsellers, all serious economic works. Most notable is the popular How Much Tax Do You Really Pay? Over 120 authors have been published under the Fraser label, including Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Martin Feldstein, Thomas Sowell, George Stigler, Walter Williams, and Richard Lipsey. "Virtually every Canadian university is using some of our books," Walker says, "and many are using all of them." In the United States, too, Oil in the Seventies, for example, and The Illusion of Wage and Price Controls are in use. The institute also conducts workshops and seminars for academic, business, and government people. The media have taken notice; in the past year, 40,000-plus column inches and hundreds of hours of radio and television have been devoted to the think tank and its work.

Walker says that he is not interested "in fiddling with economic policy" in an attempt to change society a little bit at a time. "I'd still be in government if I was. I'm interested in the 'Big Change.' My view is that we have to do an end run around the whole process." Citing the growth in attention to and support for the free-market position, Walker is confident that the Big Change will happen in the not-too-distant future in North Americans. North Americans, he says, "have been mugged by reality. Reality has simply overtaken them," and they are no longer swallowing the liberal "solutions." "It's not so much a philosophical revolution as a utilitarian revolution. People are just learning what works."

Patrick Cox is a free-lance writer.