Hub Podcast

Preserving the oak tree: The Aristotle Foundation’s Mark Milke on the need to build a free and flourishing Canada for all

A Canadian flag is seen as people enjoy Canada Day festivities in Halifax on Saturday, July 1, 2023. Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press.

This episode of Hub Dialogues features Sean Speer in conversation with Mark Milke, the president of the new Canadian think-tank, the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, about its mission, goals, and first book, The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should be Cherished—not Cancelled.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Mark Milke, a longtime author and think tank scholar and founder of Canada’s newest think tank, the Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy. The foundation’s first major output is an essay compilation edited by Mark, entitled The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should Be Cherished—Not Cancelled. The Hub has been proud to publish excerpts from several of the essays on a weekly basis over the past several weeks. I’m grateful to speak with him about the book, what he means when he argues that Canada is an “ongoing project rather than a utopian destination,” and how these ideas will ultimately underpin the work of the Aristotle Foundation itself. Mark, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book and the new think tank.

MARK MILKE: Thanks for having me on, Sean. It’s a pleasure and a privilege.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s start with the book’s title. You write that you once considered calling the think tank The 1867 Project but ultimately found it fitting for the foundation’s first book. Talk about the title’s significance, Mark. How does the book, and the Aristotle Foundation for that matter, relate to the Canadian Confederation?

MARK MILKE: Sure. So a friend suggested The 1867 Project as the name of the think tank, but I was already on the path to call it the Aristotle Foundation. And the reason we call it the Aristotle Foundation, of course, is at least in the Western tradition, the first stirrings of democracy, thinkings about democracy, and questions about the good life, of course, come from ancient Athens, ancient Greece. And these are questions that are relevant today. What does a good life look like? How should one govern oneself? Democracy versus autocracy versus other forms of government and debates about that. Those are ongoing and probably will be for all of human history. So we named it the Aristotle Foundation, but when my friend suggested that name, I thought “That’s a great name for a book.” And I was already thinking about a potential book on Canada, and of course, it just made sense. And of course, there was the 1619 Project down in the United States; a very different approach to history. Ours is more positive about history in Canada, unlike the 1619 Project down in the United States and the attack on some of the founding fathers and ideas. So that’s really where the genesis started for The 1867 Project. And it was born out of the Aristotle Foundation, this new think tank that has been started by myself and others.

SEAN SPEER: I suppose a critic, Mark, would argue that so much has changed since 1867 or Aristotle’s life, which ended in 322 BC, that they’re no longer relevant to modern life; that we’ve effectively moved past the ideas, principles, and values of these different eras. Why is such a critic wrong? What does he or she misunderstand about human nature or the enduring insights of 1867, or, as you described Aristotle in the book, a “dead white male from Greece?”

MARK MILKE: Right. Well, the critics will be right if human nature didn’t change. And unless you’re, I don’t know, not paying attention and haven’t been paying attention to history, whether it’s in one’s own lifetime or if one’s not deeply read or doesn’t grasp the right lessons from history, then it’s quite clear to me that in fact, human nature doesn’t change. And almost every generation has to learn for themselves; you can say and think through these things for themselves, just as we do as human beings, right? I mean, the old joke about 15-year-olds who think their parents don’t know anything and, by the time they get to 25, it’s amazing how much their parents have learned. It speaks to the notion of really that we discover things if we’re open and learn, hopefully in our lifetimes. But every person has to do that for themself. And I would say almost every country or civilization, or society has to do that for themself; think about what’s the role of the collective, what’s the role of the individual. But The 1867 Project really is, in one sense, an attack on utopianism, because I think that’s part of what’s at the heart of what’s going on. And what I mean by that is the utopian project in the 20th century was mostly, but not exclusively Marxists who looked to the future and thought they could create a perfect utopian society.

Now, they were dead wrong, the Marxists were, about everything: human nature, economics, so on and so forth. And they had such an ideological utopian vision that you had to fit into it, and they would force you into it because that’s the only way they’re thinking that it would work. But in any event, at least the Marxists could argue they were looking to the future when they looked for utopia. We now have people that look to the past and wonder why it wasn’t perfect. Which should be self-obvious because the past is made up of human beings and a planet that has a volcano that might erupt on you once in a while. So nothing’s perfect—not in history, not now.

And the other thing I’d say, Sean, is it’s quite immodest when people look at the past and expect John A. Macdonald to have views of 2023 without understanding the flow of ideas. But it’s also immodest in this other sense, as if you and I, Sean, won’t be looked at by someone 100 years from now, and they’ll go, “Sean and Mark, what could you possibly be thinking about issue X?” And they will probably be right. There are things that you and I think today that some future generation will discover that was in error or wrongheaded, or we just didn’t have the full story. And that’s, I think, how we should also treat 1867 and the founders of Canada, and others in history: with a bit of modesty and not pretend that we have omniscience in 2023 as if we’re going to be spared future criticism as well. And so that’s a bit of why The 1867 Project really is called The 1867 Project. Canada was a project then, it was a project pre-Confederation. The first people we now call Indigenous, but really were the first settlers who came here 20,000 years ago before nation-states were a glint in anyone’s eye, it’s always been a project that always will be a project.

SEAN SPEER: The book, and as we’ll get into a bit later, the foundation itself, doesn’t reflect the typical lines of analysis or conventional topics that one usually associates with public policy think tanks. Don’t get me wrong, Mark, there’s a great deal of rigour and policy analysis, but this is isn’t another white paper on tax reform or health-care reform. It’s more foundational in a way; it’s about history and values. Why do you think that’s important, Mark? Do you think that we—the royal “we” on the Right broadly defined—have ceded the intellectual ground on these issues too much? And if so, what have been the consequences in your mind?

MARK MILKE: Perhaps we have. I think part of the problem is man does not live by data alone. And look, I mean, the Aristotle Foundation is going to be about empiricism. We’ll use data and statistics. And you’re right, there’s some of that in the 1867 Project; Matthew Lau’s chapter on supposed systemic racism, for example. Very much a Thomas Sowell analysis of race and incomes. Why it’s a mistake to see racism is all-explanatory, all causal because it’s not. But I do think there is something to understanding that what history can inform us can help shape people’s opinions. Let me give you one clear example. If you understand that in 1858, Black Californians moved to Victoria, about 30 of them apparently, and began to write to their family and friends back in California, saying what a wonderful place Victoria was, and they did so not just because of what everyone does when you move to Victoria—the flowers in February type thing, but the Black Californians who moved to Victoria in 1858 did so because they found a welcoming community, which is probably not what people think. They look back in the 19th century and just say, “Well, it must’ve been irredeemably racist where you couldn’t get a fair shake as a Black person.”

Now, look, I’m sure there was racism. In fact, there was racism in Vancouver Island at the time. The Black Americans, though, first encountered the archbishop of the Anglican Church there. They encountered Governor James Douglas, who was welcoming. They could be citizens after two years. They could run in school board elections for council, what have you, and so on and so forth, and own property. They did encounter some racism up-island from one of the First Nations communities. And it speaks to, again the perennial temptations in human nature to look at someone else as the other and discriminate them based on their collective identity as opposed to looking at them as individuals. But nonetheless in terms of, if we’re going to look at Canada and simplistically think everyone who came before us was somehow misguided or irredeemably racist, well, no, actually, the Brits thought about this in the mid-19th century. They were reading John Stuart Mill or about to. They were reading Mary Wollstonecraft on the rights of women.

So the ideas that we have today or the society that we have today came from ideas that were pretty pronounced and articulated in the 19th century. And to not understand that and to wipe away Canadian history before 2022 or whatever, or before one’s four-year undergraduate is out, if you’re a student in a university, is akin to 1789 and 1917. It’s a start from year zero, or Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge revolution. It’s an attempt to start from year zero, and the question The 1867 Project asks is, “Well, why? Why would you do that? There are some great ideas in history.” There weren’t perfectly articulated or expressed rather or worked out in 1867, but for heaven’s sakes, I mean, Canada is a rural country, not a lot of trains around, even then, how would you reform Canada to give everyone perfect rights as if this was 2023? I mean, I could go on and on, but I mean, you’re starting from a very rural country. You’re starting from nascent attempts to say, “Well, should we give the right to vote to everyone who doesn’t have property, because maybe they’ll be irresponsible, et cetera, et cetera?” So they’re working through the ideas of what equality of the individual or equality means then. But they started, and again, back to the idea of Canada being a project.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s take up those foundational principles and ideals that the book talks about. If Canada’s intellectual foundation is fundamentally liberal, does that, Mark, mean that conservatives in our country are themselves liberals? Is the purpose of Canadian conservatism, in other words, to essentially conserve liberalism?

MARK MILKE: Yes. I think, in one sense, it is. But of course, I think we have to define what it means because many people don’t necessarily dig into ideological labels or philosophical labels. So what I mean by liberalism is classical liberalism, which I know you know about, Sean, but maybe not everyone does. So the notion of the rights of the individual or private property rights, or the rights to be free, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and so on and so forth. These are classical liberal ideas. Now, today, it’s often what we’d call small-c conservatives and libertarians, who will defend these sorts of ideas. And I think liberalism writ large in the 20th century started to take a very left-wing turn into really socialism economically, right? If you look at Pierre Trudeau’s economic policies, he was a left-wing socialist, right? I don’t think there’s any denying that, where that is really where his sympathies led and what his belief system was about; a bit of a collectivist there. Even though, as I write in The 1867 Project, he was very much a classical liberal when it came to individual rights vis-à-vis, say, ethnic collectives in Quebec, nationalism in Quebec. So yeah, ironically, conservatism, I think, is more—I’m not an expert on it, but I would say conservatism, if you understand Edmund Burke and others, is about conserving what makes sense, one should say, or what’s grown up over time, as opposed to starting from year zero. And again, of course, Edmund Burke’s famous work in the 1789 revolution, Reflections on the Revolution in France, is exactly that.

He’s saying, “Listen, we here over on this side of the pond, have developed Magna Carta, we developed limits on kings. We’re not going to overthrow our own country, or we shouldn’t, unlike those radical French over there, because this has protected people.” And that’s this organic approach to society, the government has protected people. And that’s another image, by the way, I’d want to communicate to people, is that Canada is like an oak tree. And what I mean by that is, an acorn grows to be an oak tree, of course, because it has water, because it has sunshine, because it has resistance, it has wind, which probably strengthens the roots. And what I love about oak trees is they have this massive canopy.

I live in Calgary, where we have hailstorms it seems like every third night. And my car has been hit by hail three times. If I parked under an oak tree under the canopy, it would be protected. And that’s a bit like Canada. We’ve protected an increasing number of people over the decades—over the centuries, really. An increasingly diverse set of people. And that’s a good thing. But we have people today, to use the oak tree analogy and continue it, they don’t like the sunshine of, say, free expression, right? Because it might expose their bad ideas. They don’t like resistance, so they don’t like wind. So the tree’s not going to grow. And in some really dire examples, some people don’t want the tree of Canada, the oak tree, to exist because they look back and they say, “Okay, well, Canada in 1867 discriminated against Indigenous peoples or against women.” And it was a racist and sexist society. But the point is, those were limbs that were pruned off long ago. And to think that we should kill the oak tree of Canada because of imperfect limbs in our history is to miss the point of the oak tree. It’s here, it was built, it’s pretty good.

It wasn’t China under Mao; never was that. The notion that we’re genocidal or John A. Macdonald was because of how Indigenous peoples were treated, we’ve got a chapter in the book on that. That’s nonsensical and it’s extreme, and it’s word inflation. But overall, again, the idea of the oak tree, if you look for perfection, I guess you’d tear anything down and poison the roots of any tree because nothing’s perfect. So that’s another image that we try and get out in The 1867 Project. And that might explain, again, maybe more than anything else, how myself and the other 19 authors in the book look at Canada: as an ongoing project, as an oak tree that sheltered lots of people. Never perfectly, but we’ve pruned and pruned and pruned, and we’re going to continue to prune. I mean, there are things that I disagree with today, that you disagree with in the Canadian state. I think some things have gone too far in one direction on issue X. So yeah, one continually prunes.

SEAN SPEER: It’s a brilliant analogy. You invoked Burke earlier. I would just say, my sense is if Burke were to encounter that tree, his first impulse would be to protect it precisely because it’s managed to sustain itself over the decades or centuries. That is to say, its longevity in and of itself, is a reason to be humble about the tree.

The book documents various challenges to liberalism, including cancel culture, racialism, and presentist attacks on history. What do you think is behind the growing critiques of liberalism, including from both the Left and the Right?

MARK MILKE: Well, again, a bit of a revolutionary impulse, a bit of a utopian impulse, right? They see imperfection and expect it to have been perfect. There’s certainly a notion of victimhood, but I don’t write about as much in this book as I did in my last book, The Victim Cult. But there is this notion of a grievance culture, and I think it’s probably exacerbated by social media. So, for example, I was just reading a book about World War II and Japanese internment camps in the United States, but of course, those existed in Canada as well. And I dealt with that again in my last book to some degree. You can read that, and it becomes immediate because you think this is horrible, this is unjust, and of course it was. But think about social media and the impact social media has. You can take any issue from last year or 300 years ago, or 3000 years ago, and if described properly, you can feel a sense of injustice right then. And so, I think people though, make the wrong leap where an injustice that happened 150 years ago is still having an effect today. I would say, for the most part, that’s not true. That actually more recent events will feed into outcomes. So let me give you a clear example. So First Nations poverty. We know that if you look at Canadian income statistics, and one of the authors, Matthew Lau, as I mentioned, does in a chapter in The 1867 Project, and he goes after this notion that Canada is institutionally or systemically racist today.

And what Matthew does is show that East Asian Canadians have the highest incomes of any group measured by Statistics Canada. And then people with your skin colour and my skin colour, pretty pale-faced, are in the middle. If some Black Canadians and some Indigenous—on average anyway, Indigenous Canadians make less than, say, the national average—now why is that? Is it due to racism? I would submit no, because if you look at Indigenous statistics, for example, you will find, if you are a young adult, age 25 to 34, you’ve got a university degree, you work a full year, full-time, you make the same as everyone else. Why? Probably because you’re in a city and you do have a bachelor’s degree, and you’re working full-time. But the averages are deceitful or deceiving because a portion of Indigenous Canadians live in rural areas, probably in reserves, not a lot of access to higher education or a great job, and work fewer hours, so their incomes are lower. But look, I’ll say, in 1969, a Pierre Trudeau suggestion that perhaps we do away with reserves, which most First Nations Chiefs opposed then and now. The reason for lousy incomes today has a lot to do with geography or the lack of a higher education. So don’t blame it on something that had happened 100 years ago, would be my point or our point in The 1867 Project.

So it’s important to tease out these things. It was a long way of answering your question, but I think the reason people—they’re cancelling so many things today or attack history is because they think John A.’s views in 1867 are mistakes on some file, yet have resonance today. I mean, only if you want to make the argument as some do, and it’s not without merit that the Indian Act is the problem. But again, part of the Indian Act is there because some First Nations leaders wanted it in their day and age for various reasons, which some of the authors go into. But I think people sometimes take a simplistic view of cause and effect. Look, I think there are—if I step on your toe, Sean, or the government steals your property last year, ten years ago, it’s going to have an impact on your life for sure. In the 1950s, we should have compensated Japanese Canadians more for the property that was stolen from them. It was an egregious wrong that was done to them. But the further you go back in history, the less you can actually blame things in history on present-day circumstances. I’m a product of my choices today, not what happened to my grandparents, say, fleeing Ukraine in the late 1920s or fleeing Siberia. I’m really the product mostly of my own choices today. Maybe not entirely. If my last name is Rockefeller, okay, that would be an advantage. But for most people in most of human history, what matters is the last 30 years, the last 60 years. The further you go back, I think, the weaker the cause-and-effect is. And I don’t think that’s widely understood today. Instead, people draw simplistic cause-and-effect comparisons.

SEAN SPEER: I would just say it’s implicit in the book, and I think the work of the Aristotle Foundation, that that promise of agency is fundamental to the success of our country. And the extent to which there are people who don’t have agency for whatever reason, then there’s an onus on public policy to grant them greater agency. But it’s not, in other words, to lament the lack of agency and create new sources of dependency. It’s to advance the cause of personal agency and personal responsibility.

In that vein, Mark, one example of illiberalism in our society is the growing tendency to challenge the notion of colour blindness, which basically says that we should treat people and people should be treated as if we’re blind to race. That one’s skin pigmentation shouldn’t be relevant to how we’re ultimately judged and valued in society. The anti-colourblind crowd strikes me as regressive and, frankly, almost anti-enlightenment. What do you make of this trend? Why is it wrong, and how should it be best confronted, in your view?

MARK MILKE: Well, I think it comes in large part from the work of Ibram X. Kendi in the United States with what he calls anti-racism, but really is one of the authors in the book, Jamil Jivani, talks about is really recycled racism. And I think Ibram X. Kendi’s core flaw in his analysis is, again, the simplistic racism explains everything. You’re familiar with Thomas Sowell, the American economist. Of course, he spent 50, 60 years on this question in the United States context. And he says, “Listen, people from the same family of different outcomes. Why’d you expect entire groups when they’re measured by statistical agency to have the exact same outcomes?” Or the example I think he gives is “Well, Italians historically dominated the fishing fleets around the world. Oh, that’s terribly discriminatory to the Swiss, who really are not represented in fishing fleets.” But of course, there’s a reason for this, and it’s the fact that the Italians grew up around shorelines, the Swiss didn’t. Discrimination doesn’t enter into it. And so Ibram X. Kendi’s flaw is to see everything as a result of racism. And he redefines racism to be any difference in outcomes. It’s a bit circular. You see differences in outcomes between groups, and therefore the cause and the reason is racism. So it’s very convenient. It’s not terribly bulletproof, though, I’d say, in contrast to, say, Thomas Sowell.

So I think it is, and it’s a regression actually because, again, in human history, the core mistake has always been to look at people not as individuals but as members of their tribe or their collective. And so the 19th century, long before the Nazis came along, the Germans were looking at anyone who was not born in Germany, blood and soil, as you can’t possibly be German. And even if you’re Jewish and born in Germany, you convert to Protestantism, you’re never seen as fully German because you’re part of them somehow. And this is the perennial problem in human history, is to not treat people as individuals. And the beauty of the Anglosphere and what developed over the last 800 years, in various fits and starts, and John Stuart Mill is probably the best enunciation of this, the 19th century, is that individuals should have the right to liberty. But that’s not an easy thing to do, you have to consciously think about this. So I think people today again, they’re making a couple of mistakes. They’re looking at outcomes between groups and saying, “The reason must be discrimination; therefore, we’re going to reverse discriminate.” But look, as I said to one guy who defended a particular colour hiring at a university here in Calgary and one particular department, I won’t name them, it was a private conversation. But basically what I said to the guy, I said, “Really? You’ve got a position that is available to one colour only. So you’re telling me that the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor can’t apply for this position because she’s what, privileged?” It’s absurd, this anti-individual notion. It’s very anti-Martin Luther King. And we took, what? I don’t know, a couple of millennia to get to the point we started to treat people as individuals post-World War II. We had a couple of decades of that, really, but that was the apogee of aspiration for politicians and policymakers and others in society. And then we backtrack now.

And I got to tell you something, part of this is a fascination with culture. People say my Indigenous culture needs to be restored, and it’ll save me, in essence, right? Or my Black culture will. With respect, this is nonsensical. The Germans actually went down this road in the 19th century. They were victims of the French, who had occupied German lands. Once the Germans kicked out the French, they began to recreate their national identity or search for their identity. And they got big into this notion of cultural purity, and it didn’t save them. What it did is it simply made them xenophobic, because culture is always changing and it doesn’t save you. What saves you in the grand sense, I would say, is attention to the individual, giving the individual rights, giving people equal opportunity. If you think pure culture will save you, let me give you the example of Japan where when the Americans entered Tokyo Harbour in what was it? 1853, or whatever it was—well, this nation that walled itself off in the world for two and a half centuries was weak and could no longer push back, and they had to accept American demands in the mid-19th century. The notion that cultural purity will save you is actually exactly opposite of how it happens. Cultures that learn from each other, that profit from each other.

We adopted Arabic numbers in the Western world. If we had kept with Roman numerals, we’d still be a backwater because you can’t do algebra and you can’t do insurance calculations. So I think there are a lot of things going on, but I think it’s a flawed analysis of what’s causing distinction or different outcomes. I think it’s a fascination with pure culture, which is not going to save anybody. And it’s actually insulting. If I want to take on it—I love parts of Japan, I love some Japanese things. That’s part of my identity because I spent two years there. You can culturally appropriate, and it’s a good thing most days. And I think we’re just on this really narrow-minded, ethnonationalist, my culture only. That never ends well in history, and it’s not going to end well now if it continues. And in the meantime, it discriminates against individuals.

SEAN SPEER: Great answer, Mark. As our society becomes more heterogeneous and diverse, it seems to me that liberalism and pluralism will both become more important and yet less capable of holding us together. What do you think? Are liberalism and pluralism necessary yet insufficient conditions for Canada to flourish? And if so, what can we do? What additional ideas or values can provide that essential scaffolding to the country’s understanding of itself?

MARK MILKE: I wonder about this a lot. And I should probably mention the beginning of the book, The 1867 Project, we lay out the problems in Canadian society right now and take on some myths as well. So we have Bruce Pardy from Queen’s University talking about the problem of critical theory, which basically is, again, very utopian or thinks you can start from year zero all the time, or should you’ve got other people in the book that try and give readers some perspective on history? And at the end of the book, I go into immigration statistics. And of course, diversity is an overused word, but Canada is becoming more identity diverse is the best way to put it. Many more different religions, a greater proportion of non-Christian religions, for example, or atheism: non-practising people in any sense of the word. You’ve also got people, of course, all over the planet in greater proportion than ever before. What does that speak to? Well, nation-states that survive and thrive have to unite around some idea. In France, it’s liberty, equality, fraternity. In the United States, it’s life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Canada’s credo, peace, order, and good government, is less obvious, but it’s there. And our tradition really is inherited from British classical liberalism, as you and I have talked about. I think we should unite around these ideas again—the rights of the individual.

In other words, know what some people call affirmative action, what I would call racial and ethnic quotas, no dividing people on that basis. We obviously should unite around the rights of women when it comes to, say, traditional cultures, which may not like that as much, and yet some immigrants that come here may carry that. So I think it’s important to unite around good ideas. Now, is that enough? I don’t know. Historically, cultures in any civilization develop, probably, at least in my view or my understanding, from certain religious beliefs or philosophical beliefs. Maybe Buddhism in one case, maybe Christianity in another, Islam if you’re in the Levant or that area in the Middle East. And Judaism, of course, the idea of monotheism. Traditionally, religion has informed our culture. Now, when you’ve got all sorts of cultures, can you simply, willingly unite around these ideas I’ve just mentioned, like the rights of the individual, right? Maybe, maybe not. If you actually believe that there’s a God that you must bow down to that doesn’t tolerate certain things, you may have a problem with—and I don’t mean 20th century liberalism or 21st century liberalism, but just even the idea of 19th century liberalism—the rights of the individual, the rights of the woman—in that context, you might not agree with that.

So can we simply say to people, “You should adopt these ideas?” Is the wish or the choice enough? I don’t know. I mean, Allan Bloom talked about this in The Closing of the American Mind in 1987 as the old regime dies or faith, and he was talking about Christianity, it has less influence. What are we replacing it with? And he didn’t have an answer. These days, apparently, it’s wokeness, but that’s maybe another conversation. But in terms of those of us who think that, again, these classic ideas developed over centuries that protected a lot of people under this oak tree of Canada, under the canopy of Canada. Can you simply accede to these and say, “We want these?” I don’t know, especially when you have a ton of people attacking them, including the prime minister, who doesn’t seem to grasp. But his own experience, being a product of French and English coupling, it’s the same with Canada. Can we simply preserve these ideas because we wish to? I honestly don’t know, Sean. I hope so. And that’s part of why The 1867 Project was written. I don’t know if a wish is powerful enough.

SEAN SPEER: Listeners will discern, throughout this conversation, Mark, your distinction between a project and a utopian destination. How will that basic framework influence the ongoing work of the Aristotle Foundation?

MARK MILKE: Sure. I had someone ask me just the other day why we published a column about Ukraine. For the most part, we’re going to concentrate on domestic issues at the Aristotle Foundation, but we published a column by Waller R. Newell, one of our senior fellows, who’s written a number of tremendous books on tyrants and tyrannies. And I recommend all of his books to readers, but those in particular on tyrants and tyrannies because he’s got a deep grasp of why tyrants exist and the different types of tyrants. Somebody asked me why—and he wrote a column on Ukraine saying democracies, Western democracies, NATO democracies, and the EU, and us in the United States, should support Ukraine. Not necessarily with troops. We hope it doesn’t come to that, but certainly, we should support them in every possible way we can now in their fight against the Russian invasion. So somebody queried me on why we published that. What I was trying to say to the person who queried me on this is “Listen.” They said, “Well, Ukraine’s corrupt.” And I said, “Really? Yeah, so what?” Despite maybe the fact the president there is trying to stamp it out in the middle of a war, maybe Czechoslovakia was corrupt in 1938, maybe Poland was corrupt in 1939. Chile wasn’t perfect under Pinochet, but I preferred him to the Marxists. And in the 1970s, liberal Democrats in the United States under Jimmy Carter abandoned countries that weren’t perfect. And if we have people on the Right now that are abandoning countries because they’re not perfect, and we won’t support them because Ukraine’s corrupt or not perfect, to me, that’s the new utopianism, or one example of it.

So people on the Right make the same mistake historically as people on the Left do. So at the Aristotle Foundation, that was a long way of answering your question, we’re going to not be utopian. We’re going to say, “Listen, what’s a reasonable approach to this issue?” And in fact, I think that’s one of the things that will make us distinct as a think tank. The other think tanks in Canada do great work in the economy and the environment and energy issues we’re not going to get into, but we will get into some of these issues of what’s the good life look like as an individual, but also for us as a country? What kind of decisions do we make about other nations to support when that enters in? And we can’t take a utopian, perfectionist approach. And look, I’m a perfectionist in my own life. I mean, I know the signs, I know the dangers. But if you take that approach, which people do, then I think it leads to you getting nothing done or you’re not allowed to ask again what’s—I mean, Health Canada came out with basically regulations or advice against drinking any alcohol. One should be careful not to imbibe too much, but the good life is also about, “Okay, what’s the cost-benefit ratio here? Do I want to live till 96 and never have a drip of wine? Or maybe 93?” So asking, What does the good life look like? Again, this is at the heart of the Aristotle Foundation, and it’s more of an art than a perfect science some days. So that’s going to inform how we approach things using data statistics but also history. And hopefully, in all of that, it’s seasoned with reason.

SEAN SPEER: Yeah. Let me follow up on that question, Mark, because, as I mentioned earlier, the book resists the tendency of think tanks to merely revert to well-trodden territory like tax and fiscal policy, health care, or education. It signals a willingness to weigh into issues like culture and identity. What should listeners expect from the Aristotle Foundation? What do you think about its place in the think tank landscape? What will be its key differentiators?

MARK MILKE: Well, I think we’ll use history as part of the analytical framework, as I’ve mentioned, right? I think it’s also the issues we go after. The issues just mentioned are all important, but they’re well covered by other think tanks. And I also think, again, how we approach some of these issues. If we were going to analyze the environment, and we’re not, I would say you can’t just analyze it in a dollars and cents perspective. And what I mean by that, again, using the utopian analysis here, is to understand the modern environmental movement, or at least the most radical wing of it, it’s not about the dollars and cents equation. If I have an economist say to me, “Well, if we do environmental policy, we’ll have bad economic outcomes.” My response is, “Yes. But that’s what they want.” You have to understand the modern environmental movement as a utopian movement, much like some religious movements that are utopian.

They want to reconstruct your identity on the entire planet to fit what they think needs to happen. So I think the analysis is going to be, again, somewhat historical and philosophical. I’d also say it’s this, I mean, to cut to the chase, we want to make people think. And so when people say we’re a racist society, really, you might want to rethink that. We’re going to ask people to rethink that. Our logo is “Champion reason, democracy, and civilization.” Let’s think about democracy. Why do the Swiss get to vote against a carbon tax or for or against it? Why do Americans get to vote for or against marijuana legalization? Or why do liberal San Franciscans get to throw at three school board trustees who kept their kids out of school during COVID but then also wanted to rename schools named after Abraham Lincoln and Dianne Feinstein? So we’re also going to look at democratic reform. And lastly, we’re going to look at civilization, which is an old-fashioned word, but it simply means we’re going to look at how we live together and how we should live together. So crime issues, urban issues, for example, are we really sure it’s a good idea not to institutionalize people who have severe mental problems and instead that it’s better to let them waste away on the street? How is that compassionate? So civilizational issues, right? But with an attention on cities, for example. So reason democracy, civilization, wrapped in statistical analysis but also historical analysis. But our goal is to make people think.

SEAN SPEER: A final question. What does success look like for you at the Aristotle Foundation?

MARK MILKE: Well, a Canada where people treat each other based on their individual merits and not based on some collective identity; where we build on the successes and sacrifices of the past rather than tearing it down. Again, we preserve the oak tree, and expand the oak tree, and prune the oak tree. And a future for Canada where everyone has the potential, it’s given the opportunity to be free and to flourish. So that’s really our vision for the country—a free, flourishing Canada for all.

SEAN SPEER: Well, if one wants to understand those ideas in more detail, they ought to read The 1867 Project: Why Canada Should Be Cherished—Not Cancelled. Mark Milke from The Aristotle Foundation for Public Policy, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MARK MILKE: Thank you, Sean.

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