I must have no heart, as I can safely say I have never been a socialist, or even had socialist leanings. The die was probably cast when I was about five years old, sitting on my father’s knee. My parents were new immigrants to Canada in the 1960s. To make ends meet in their early years my father would work during the day as a bricklayer and my mother would clean offices in the evening. While my mother worked, my father was entrusted with the care of my older brother and myself. Rather than sit us in front of a television – mostly because we only had two channels and nothing really of interest to a pre-schooler and third grader – he would play guitar and teach us about life.
On one occasion, after he exhausted all the music he knew, he talked to us about political parties. He mentioned the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the Communists. He might have said NDP, but I remember Communism because he made the point that the ideology was based on a book written by one man. I found that fascinating that people would change their way of life just because some guy wrote a book. From his description, it didn’t even sound like that much of a book. To be fair, my father was biased; he escaped socialist Yugoslavia in the 1950s because he could see as an ambitious young man that he would never make it in that country. His explanation about the role of government in the socialist state coloured my perception of state dominance and control. I would never be a fan of either.
When I finished high school I went straight to the Political Science department at the University of Calgary. At the time the department was in its most productive years of what would be later called the Calgary School. I sat in seminars with Barry Cooper and Tom Flanagan. Later, during my PhD., I would take classes with Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton. From Cooper I learned about Canadian federalism, Leo Strauss, Eric Vogelin, Hannah Arendt, and Karl Marx. From Flanagan, I learned about Aboriginal politics, Millenarian movements, and Liberalism. I thoroughly enjoyed those years as those courses and those professors provided me with the foundation of classical liberal thought. They also made valiant attempts to help me improve my writing. On one poorly constructed essay I submitted, Flanagan wrote that my future would be in jeopardy unless my writing improved. As devastating as the comments were at the time, they inspired me to do better.
During one summer between my BA and MA, Cooper had me work on a content analysis of CBC radio news. The paper that resulted from that study, “Bias at the CBC?”, was presented to the Canadian Political Science Association meeting in Winnipeg the following summer. A small media frenzy ensued, with some communications media scholars denouncing our work, and the President of the CBC, no less, calling for a reprimand of Dr. Cooper. It also resulted in Mike Walker, then-President of the Fraser Institute, learning of our work and making it a personal project of his to raise some funds to further this research. By the time I finished my MA in Communications, Walker had raised enough money to fund a project that would later be known as the National Media Archive.
When I started at the Fraser Institute I didn’t self-identify as a conservative. Early on Walter Block, the American libertarian economist who was then with the Institute, asked me about my political beliefs. I rather awkwardly replied that I didn’t have any. He graciously avoided challenging me on the subject, but the conversation got me thinking more deeply about where I stood. I read his brilliant and controversial libertarian manifesto, Defending the Undefendable, and an equally provocative article he wrote on abortion, which still sticks with me.
Published in Reason magazine in 1978, Block’s essay offered a libertarian compromise on abortion. He noted that while the unborn child was trespassing in the mother’s womb and she could on those grounds evict the child, she nonetheless had a duty to do no harm. His analogy was that of a dinner guest who overstayed his welcome. Certainly the dinner guest’s hosts had a right to ask him to leave after the party, but they did not have a right to end his life if he refused. The problem, then, was how does one evict an unborn child without taking their life? Since there is no way to do so, Block argued for a compromise based on property rights. This acknowledged a woman’s right to “evict” her unwanted fetus, but only in a manner that is as gentle as possible and does no harm to the unborn child. That argument resonated with me and to this day I think it ought to have a larger role in the mainstream debate over abortion.
Fraser Institute staff were encouraged to read widely, beyond the writings of our in-house authors. The Institute subscribed to a wide range of publications including the New Republic, Commentary, The Economist, Reason, and the Public Interest. These magazines opened my eyes to the world far beyond what I got from my media analyses of CBC and CTV news.
My horizons were further expanded by Institute luncheon events with conservative speakers from around the world. Former U.S. President Gerald Ford was the guest at my first such event, but over the 14 years I worked at the Institute I would attend many more featuring the likes of Jerry Jordan, former President and Chief Executive Officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, Margaret Thatcher, former Prime Minister of Great Britain, Milton Friedman, Nobel Laureate, and Ralph Klein, former Alberta Premier, to name a few.
In addition to the great speakers who graced us with their presence, the Fraser Institute was home to a number of visiting scholars. Economists such as Herbert Grubel, Stephen Easton, Zane Spindler, and Steven Globerman would work on research projects and provide intellectual stimulus in the office. I clearly was not the only beneficiary of the Institute’s education. Many students who passed through our offices during those years would later become leading figures in the conservative movement.
All during this time, I learned about free market economics. Mike Walker had a wonderful way of using storytelling to explain complex economic ideas. At the core of these lessons was a simple truth: people are better than governments at making decisions for themselves. With all due respect to Winston Churchill, the quote often attributed to him that a person who is not a socialist in their twenties has no heart is a false premise. It assumes there is only one way to solve the problems of the poor. What I learned at the Fraser Institute and from the readings and people I came into contact with was that government solutions to social problems such as poverty often only perpetuated the problem and created dependency.
Despite my admission at the outset of this narrative that I mustn’t have a heart, in fact, I do care about those less fortunate than myself. But growing up in a working class family who struggled in the beginning without the aid of government assistance, the lesson I learned is that we survived and thrived based on our own good judgement and hard work. It was only when well intentioned, but mismanaged government policies came our way that we suffered. And suffer we did; the National Energy Program was one such policy that harmed many people in Alberta, including my family, although we fared better than some of our friends and neighbours who lost their livelihoods, and in some cases their homes. In that case, certainly, the market would have been a much better friend to us than the government ever was.
We are all the products of our upbringing and those we have come into contact with. Given my first hand encounters with the brightest and best right-wing intellectuals of the 20th century, and my experiences with Alberta’s booms and busts, how could I be other than a conservative?
And yet, here I am mid-career at a university in the heart of a union-dominated city in southwestern Ontario. I certainly didn’t expect that turn of events and when I started I was a little concerned about how my views would be received by both faculty and the students. For the most part, faculty tend to leave each other alone, and apart from the odd disparaging remark at union meetings aimed at the Fraser Institute, I tend to be shielded from any overt hostility.
As for my students, many have said that they find my classes refreshing because I offer content quite different from that of my colleagues. Some worry that they have to take my political view in order to get good grades. I try to assure them that what matters to me is that they make their case, and if they can provide good evidence, I’m not going to penalize them for disagreeing with me. After all, I am confident that students will in time come to see the wisdom of conservative and libertarian writers.
A few years ago a student who described himself as a Marxist was in one of my seminar classes. He was openly hostile to the prospect of reading an article published by the Cato Institute on the economic crisis. I asked him to read it anyway as we would be discussing the content in the next class. A week later when we took up the reading, the student said that he had a complete reversal of his previous thinking. Apparently he wasn’t a Marxist after all but in fact a libertarian. The rest of the semester he worked on his policy paper from a libertarian perspective. He then decided that his goal was to work for a market-orientated think tank. He ended up interning at the Fraser Institute as well as the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and is now a policy analyst for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies. As a teacher, it is gratifying to see how the ideas that influenced me are now influencing the next generation.
Lydia Miljan is an Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Windsor, and Chair of the Arts and Science program. She is also a Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute.