Well, this isn’t good news.
About two weeks ago, without a great deal of fanfare, it was announced that everybody’s favorite billionaire funded lobby group, the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (AIMS), was being swallowed by The Fraser Institute, arguably Canada’s most influential right-wing think tank.
Appearing as a news item in The Chronicle Herald on November 20th, the story explained how some Fraser heavyweights will now be returning to their neo-liberal roots. Fraser Institute resident fellow Fred McMahon was involved in the early days of AIMS and his first book for them, Looking the Gift Horse in the Mouth: The Impact of Federal Transfers on Atlantic Canada was published in 1996. AIMS alumnus Ben Eisen, will also be returning to our shores. Eisen is a strong supporter of the neo-liberal movement and, in typical AIMS style, particularly vocal in his support for charter schools. As recently as 2014, Eisen published an Op-ed piece in The Chronicle Herald on the topic, which I felt perhaps needed a bit of tempering.
Now, it might be helpful to provide a bit of context here. Back in the 1950’s, an economist by the name of Friedrich Hayek determined that the best way for society to move forward was through making governments smaller and allowing for a greater amassing of individual wealth. This idea soon caught on with people, mostly those who were individually wealthy. He wrote an essay on the topic that was read by one Antony Fisher, a millionaire chicken farmer. Fisher was so inspired that he went to see Hayek to tell him that he was going into politics. Hayek told him not to. Hayek explained that if Fisher really wanted to have the world adopt the attitude that more wealth for the wealthy was a good idea, he should open a think tank.
And that is just what Fisher did.
Fisher founded the Institute of Economic Affairs in 1954, and went on to establish The Atlas Network, which is now one big happy neo-liberal family. Atlas boasts upwards of five hundred think-tanks world wide, all selling the same idea that if you allow the markets to run free, everyone wins.
More to the point, Fisher was instrumental in establishing the Fraser Institute, and Fraser was instrumental in establishing AIMS. This might explain why McMahon’s book won the Sir Antony Fisher International Memorial Award. One signature move of the neo-liberal think-tank movement is that they have a tendency to make up prestigious sounding awards which they then grant to each other. They also tend to give themselves rather important sounding titles, such as “senior policy analyst” and “resident fellow.”
It is this somewhat questionable method of self-branding that makes them so insidious. Another signature trade mark of the movement is to release policy documents, under the guise of academic research, which is essentially propaganda for the movement. That propaganda is usually given credence by a “research fellow” from another think tank, and presented as a uniquely local solution.
The general idea behind these think tanks is simple. You take someone who can speak or write about a particular topic, and you give them a title. You then train that individual and pay them to spread the message that current structures of government (think health care or education) are failing. The messenger then provides solutions that align with the neo-liberal world view; essentially that if governments get out of the way, the private sector, driven by competition and profits, will improve society.
These messengers, which Hayek referred to as “second-hand dealers in ideas” have been part of the neo-liberal movement since Fisher founded the IEA. If you want to know who these individuals are, you simply have to look at any AIMS publication of the past twenty years. As an example, AIMS has certainly spent a great deal of time (and presumably money) promoting their brand of public education experts, individuals who are seldom recognized as such by anyone actually working in the field.
So, what does all this mean for education in Nova Scotia? Well, my prediction is that within the next few months, the airways will be filled with the voices of McMahon and Eisen promoting the establishing of charter schools in our region. These will either be brick and mortar alternatives to a system that they will happily frame as failing, or perhaps they will be promoting an online delivery model. They will try to sell parents on “school choice” and competition, and we will undoubtedly see ourselves, once again, being beaten with our short comings, perceived or otherwise. Whether it be low test scores or lead in our drinking water, labor disputes or the inclusion policy, we will soon have an internationally funded entity trying to convince us that they have the solutions.
If you want to see where that road takes us, have a quick Google search for “another day, another charter school scandal“.
Remembering that the whole driving ideology behind neo-liberalism is the amassing of personal wealth, one thing should be completely clear. When it comes to public education, Fraser is not coming here to improve. Fraser is coming here to privatize.
It should also not be lost on anybody that by abolishing democratically elected school boards, and reducing the power of the unions, our government has made that goal a whole lot easier to achieve.
Originally published December 07, 2019 in The Chronicle Herald