The long reach of the Calgary School

By: on May 18, 2018 |

When Troy Lanigan of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation asked me to talk about the Calgary School and gave me all of five minutes, it was akin to asking if I’d mind describing the rise and fall of Rome, the split of Christendom, and the 30 years war and not leave out any important details.

I will do my best.

First, what is the “Calgary School”?

One could describe the Calgary School with reference to their critics and cranks. I recall one professor, she who shall not be named, who made a quasi-living out of critiquing the school, attributing hidden conspiracies to it. She was later self-banished to the academic wilds of Saskatchewan.

One journalist described the school as influenced by Ronald Reagan, i.e., American and right-wing. This is a typical charge. It ignores how big government liberalism and all its barnacles migrated north from the United States and replaced a more moderate and defensible liberalism in Canada now called “conservative”.

What is the Calgary School’s driving idea? Tom Flanagan’s description of his own thinking, as influenced by the economist Friedrich Hayek, is perhaps the best way to understand it. Hayek argued that spontaneous order arises when people are left to spontaneously order themselves. I fish. You grow grain. We need some of each other’s goods. We barter until we come to a deal. We do not require the state to help organize us.

Of course, there is an important role for government – it can organize armies to defeat Adolf Hitler. But much of what government does, it does expensively, badly, or both. I give you Ontario’s government-wrecked power grid as the most egregious recent Canadian example.

Hayek’s notion of necessary, organic order, and how this informs culture, a community and then politics, was, I think, often at the core of the School’s battles over the decades with politicians and policies that harmed Canada. Politicians often intervene where they should not and this harms the spontaneous order, i.e., community.

The name: The Calgary School was a term originally coined by Ralph Hedlin in an Alberta Report column decades ago. Rainer Knopff tells me he prefers the “Calgary mafia”, a term coined by Globe and Mail political columnist Jeffrey Simpson (the long-time defender of Central Canadian Laurentian liberal orthodoxies from conservative hinterland heresies like those of the Calgarians).

Knopff, Cooper, and Morton at a party celebrating a French Revolution anniversary.

But whatever you call it, the Calgary School became notable for three reasons.

First, these four men were in touch with reality. This is as not easy as it sounds. In universities, tenure protects academics from both feedback and the consequences of lousy ideas. As a result, they drift ever further from the reality of life for most people. The same thing happens to judges if they arrive at the bench directly from academia. And politicians often spend billions in misguided, wasteful ways with little consequence. Whatever the misguided idea, judgment or expense, real harm is often the result and to real people: the entrepreneur in Calgary, the lobster fishermen on the Atlantic coast, the single mother on a reserve.

In contrast, the Calgary School was anchored in real-world problems and remedies.

Example: Tom Flanagan, long an expert on Aboriginal matters before some deemed him “controversial”, looked at reserves. He figured out that property rights matter to wealth creation and human freedom; they matter to the suppressed rights of women. He blamed poverty and abuse and other on-reserve social pathologies in part on the lack of property rights. Tom said so and wrote so because he was in touch with reality.

So that’s the first point: the Calgary School was grounded in reality.

Second, to reality they added truth-telling which led to clarity of analysis.

Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton looked at judges and their rulings. They concluded there was often another unelected political party operating in Canada: The Court Party, the title of one of their books on the subject. That attention to the judicial backrooms of the nation allowed Ted and Rainer to expose the growing politicization of the courts.

Reality plus truth-telling leads to ground-breaking work which the Calgary school produced time and again. This becomes especially relevant when others see the emperor as fully clothed. In contrast, the Calgary School professors often looked at naked “emperors” – selected academics, some judges and many politicians, and pointed out their pink-skinned state. This might explain why emperors were rarely their friends.

Reality plus clarity leads to the third feature of the Calgary school: great writing. Honest thinking leads to clear analysis and that leads to solid writing. The members of the Calgary School are all excellent communicators, and that helped fuel their impact on culture, policy and politics.

One example: consider what Seal Team Six found in Abbottabad, Pakistan in 2011, when they invaded a compound and killed Osama bin Laden. Among bin Laden’s possessions was a book: New Political Religions, or An Analysis of Modern Terrorism. It was authored by one of the Calgary School, Barry Cooper.

You want evidence of impact? I’d say when the world’s most notorious terrorist of the last half-century turns to a member of the Calgary School for self-understanding, that’s impact.

Let me sum up these four gentlemen this way, with apologies to the author of Genesis.

In the beginning the Canadian intelligentsia was formless and empty-headed, entranced by Marxism, structuralism and critical theory; by Michael Foucault, Antonio Gramsci, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky and their political disciples such as Pierre Trudeau and others. Darkness hovered over the surface of the universities and Canadian intellectual, political and commentary life.

But the spirit of God looked at the dark matter, and God said, “Let there be one who will think clearly about how human beings act” and lo, the Lord created Tom Flanagan.

God then looked upon the law schools and judiciary of the land; he was displeased. He said “Let there be sensible analysis”. Out of the wilds of the University of Toronto he thus called forth two Ph.D. students, later prophets, Rainer Knopff and Ted Morton.

Then God said “Let there be one who will separate central Canadian political fiction from the Alberta narrative based in common sense reality”, and lo, the Lord birthed Barry Cooper.

The short version: God was unhappy with the intellectual darkness across the land; he said “Let there be light”. That was the Calgary School. And God saw that it was good.


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About Mark Milke

Mark Milke is a writer for Canadians for Affordable Energy, and a founding editorial board member of C2C Journal. He is a public policy analyst and author of five books. His newest, Ralph vs. Rachel: A Tale of Two Premiers, will be released in November.