Montreal, June 17, 2007 • No 230




Harry Valentine is a
free-marketeer living in Eastern Ontario.




by Harry Valentine


          The Conference Board of Canada recently released a report on innovation (or lack thereof) which claims that "Canadians are complacent and generally unwilling to take risks." It criticizes scientists for not publishing enough papers and inventors for not filing enough patents. The health care system was singled out for not being more proactive in disease prevention. Some of the recommendations they mention in their report to remedy the situation are noteworthy. They include cutting taxes on capital investment, cutting red tape and recognizing immigrant's credentials.


          Several of the report's other recommendations such as disease prevention are already being fulfilled by various private sector players. The web pages of Dr Andrew Weil, Dr Joseph Mercola and Dr Julian Whitaker provide useful advice in this area. They also expose hoaxes such as the bird flu epidemic. There are several excellent books on the shelves of most neighbourhood bookstores that cover subjects such as home remedies, disease prevention and health care. Individual people can take responsibility for their own health if they so choose.

          A libertarian approach to dealing with mediocrity and the lack of innovation would begin by examining how state action may ultimately promote mediocrity while stifling innovation. The state school system disregards the unique individuality of each child and expects all children to learn the same subjects at the same rate. It is only in the homeschooling environment and in a handful of private schools that students may experience learner-paced instruction. The joy of learning is all but absent in the majority of state run schools.

          Canadian education borrows heavily from precedents in the United States. A onetime award winning teacher and former president of a teacher union named John Taylor Gatto has published an online critique of public education in America and other nations. The emphasis in state schools is on conformity in behaviour and in the pace of learning. In his classic book entitled A Mind at a Time pediatrics professor Dr Mel Levine wrote that the structure of each child's brain was as unique as the DNA and fingerprints. He further advised that each child's brain also processed information in its own unique and distinctive way.

          The writings of Taylor and Levine suggest that the foundations of innovation, achievement and excellence may best be nurtured in a learner-paced environment where children routinely experience the joys of learning and of discovery. Such an environment usually exists outside of the state school system and may be the reason behind the worldwide growth in private schooling and homeschooling. The innovators of history were almost consistently people who learned their innovation outside of the formal school system. Thomas Edison who invented the incandescent light bulb learned about electricity hands on while working as a telegraph operator.

          There are many other examples of innovators, inventors and entrepreneurs who had minimal formal schooling and whose achievements were noteworthy. Henry Ford developed a mass production line for automobiles. Booker T. Washington was a former slave who is alleged to have taught himself how to read and who founded the Tuskegee Institute. The world's foremost modern innovator whose software runs most computer systems stepped out of university studies to pursue other interests.

"The libertarian road to innovation, achievement and excellence is a politically incorrect one. It will begin by recognizing that children's minds are not state property and the state has no right imposing itself or its will onto those minds."

          Most modern universities and numerous private institutions are offering online educational programs that allow adult students to learn at the own pace. One of the world's leading science and engineering schools has put academic material online where it is freely accessible to almost anyone in the world. People wanting to receive credit for the particular course of study would have to pay tuition fees in order to receive official recognition from the university.

          Learner-paced educational programs that cover a wide variety of subjects are also available on compact discs and on DVD's. The material is suitable for a wide age group of people that includes adults and homeschooled teenagers who are motivated to learn material that is of interest to them at home and at their own pace. There may be any number of entrepreneurial types who are likely to study material that is available via the home computer and make innovative and productive use of it.

          Innovative business thinking can often be found in some very unlikely areas of the economy. The illicit drug trade is motivated to use innovation to maximize earnings that result from transporting illicit drugs across international borders. Entrepreneurs who are actively involved in the underground economy often have to innovate in order to remain in business while remaining free from being incarcerated. They regularly find discrete and innovative ways to answer the market's call for products and services that governments want to deny to citizens.

          Participants in regulated markets are not under the same kind of pressure to innovate in order to stay in business. Economic regulation minimizes competition and protects the commercial interest of a limited number of people. One of the downsides of economic regulation is that it stifles innovation and entrepreneurship. It maintains the status quo for prolonged periods and ultimately promotes inefficiency and waste. It will often stifle the development of new ideas and new concepts that could otherwise have advanced the market in one sector of the economy and could have spin-off benefits in other areas of the economy.

          The libertarian road to innovation, achievement and excellence is a politically incorrect one. It will begin by recognizing that children's minds are not state property and the state has no right imposing itself or its will onto those minds. Greater freedom and more competition would need to prevail in how children are educated. More children will be homeschooled or privately tutored in learner paced environments. The television program known as Sesame Street has had greater success in introducing young children to the rudiments of a second language than many of the programs that are offered in the state run schools.

          There is much that government can do to help spur innovation if it will please Canada's libertarian-in-chief. The right honourable approach in this regard would be to economically deregulate major sectors of Canada's economy. A reduction or absence of economic regulation will mean that more competition will likely prevail and which would likely lead to greater innovation by industry. There is an important lesson that may be learned from the high-tech malinvestment boom (mid-1990's) that was followed by the high-tech bust (year 2000). Government needs to take a laissez-faire approach when it comes to encouraging innovation in any sector the market. Private people who can operate in freedom from state intrusion and state control could go far in terms of increasing innovation in the economy.