Canada’s Right-Wing Think Tanks Love Race Science

Canadian conservatives present their animus toward social spending as nothing more than fiscal prudence. But a review of the think tanks’ arguments informing this frugality reveals a deeply misanthropic racism.

Charles Murray’s racial pseudoscience has been strongly influential on Canadian conservatives’ justifications for cuts to social spending. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

When right-wing governments across Canada slash social programs and protections, they turn to research institutes and think tanks who eagerly prepare policy papers to support them. It is this stratum of researchers and scholars who provide the ideological underpinning for conservative political strategy.

Starting in the 1970s, ongoing cuts have been made to Canada’s social assistance programs, leaving the country’s welfare net threadbare. The justifications for these cuts were often provided by right-wing think tanks who advanced the principle that the poor are innately inferior and undeserving of assistance. These rationales evince a passion for the ideas of Charles Murray and other social scientists whose policy advice hinges on racist pseudoscience. In their telling, the problems of social inequality can largely be explained by welfare mothers’ “illegitimate births” and the genetic inferiority of people of color.

A review of the proposals used by Canadian conservatives to gut social spending has found that the case made by these think tanks was based as much on a racist and classist worldview as on statistical models. The resulting policies, advertised as sensible fiscal prudence, were in fact anchored in a social Darwinism that is deeply contemptuous of people of color and the poor.

Welfare Warfare

With the onset of stagflation in the 1970s, governments across Canada were pushed to cut education, health and social assistance programs. The force behind this push came from think tanks and research institutes outside the state and conservative politicians within.

Founded in 1974, the Fraser Institute is perhaps Canada’s best-known right-wing organization to emerge in this period. Backed by forestry company MacMillan Bloedel, the institute emerged from the backrooms of Ontario’s long-ruling Progressive Conservative Party (PC). Guided by then national director Jerry Lampert and party organizer Patrick Kinsella, it earned its reputation by helping British Columbia’s Social Credit Party government of the 1980s turn the province into a right-wing policy lab.

The institute’s chief economist, Walter Block, can be singled out for conceiving of some of the Social Credit regime’s most regressive ideas. Social Credit’s decision to abolish BC’s Human Rights Commission was inspired by Block. Leveraging the conservative cri de coeur for “freedom,” Block wrote that “the right to discriminate is a desirable feature of free societies.”  Block’s follow-up on the matter, The Case for Discrimination, further argued that no society that judged people on the basis of “merit” can ever be “colorblind.” Block declared that meritocratic divisions in such a society would inevitably emerge — reflecting the supposed reality that some races are more capable and meritorious than others:

Because merits of different types and varieties are statistically correlated with different groupings, including racial, preferences for people on this basis are not at all distinguishable, at least in effect, from choices made with respect to race or color. If true colorblindness is the goal, allowing discrimination on the basis of merit will hardly achieve it.

Block cited three key sources to corroborate this claim: “Race Differences in Behaviour” by JeanPhillippe Rushton andThe Practical Significance of Black-White Differences in Intelligence” by Linda Gottfredson — both closely associated with the white supremacist and eugenicist Pioneer Fund — along with The Bell Curve by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein.

In Murray and Herrnstein’s widely debunked book, they claimed to show that “welfare mothers are concentrated at the low end of the cognitive ability distribution.” These mothers — especially the black ones — were, according to the authors, generating a growing “underclass” of “illegitimate  children.” These offspring, born out of wedlock, were innately doomed to criminality and future welfare dependence.

The authors favorably cite Race, Evolution, and Behavior by aforementioned Canadian psychologist and onetime head of the Pioneer Fund, J. Phillipe Rushton. Rushton’s seminal racist text is lauded, by Murray and Herrnstein, for its “detailed and convincing” proposal that just as “species vary in their reproductive strategies” so do “Mongoloids, Caucasoids, and Negroids.” Black people, Murray and Herrnstein propose, may be wired by “evolutionary differences” to have more children with a lower “parental investment.”

In the early 2000s, Block was asked why he thought that black people found themselves more often in poverty than white people. Responding, predictably, with racist cliches, he stated that:

The politically correct answer is that lower black productivity is due to slavery, Jim Crow legislation, poor treatment of African-Americans in terms of schooling, etc. The politically incorrect explanation was supplied by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their book The Bell Curve: lower black IQs.

“Illegitimate Births” and the “Underclass” in Ontario

In Ontario, the Mike Harris–led Progressive Conservatives spent the early 1990s in opposition to the social democratic New Democratic Party. The Fraser Institute was an important ally in the PC’s campaign to cut the province’s social assistance programs and implement stringent “workfare” criteria. Harris personally attended the institute’s events on tax and spending cuts.

In 1994, Tory MPP Ted Arnott credited a youth counselor named Rico Sabatini with tipping him off to a local case of welfare irregularity. A sixteen-year-old girl was “receiving welfare” without justification as to why she couldn’t live with her parents — she had, apparently, neglected to file any “allegations of abuse.” Weighing in on the issue, Harris lamented, “What we are finding out now is case after case of this.”

Soon after the Tories’ 1995 election win, Sabatini cowrote a policy paper for the Fraser Institute, titled Welfare — No Fair: A Critical Analysis of Ontario’s Welfare System. Citing Murray, the report argued that “generous” welfare programs across Ontario were creating a “growing underclass” of illegitimate children — especially “among blacks.” To rectify the problem, the report suggested “decreasing the attractiveness of the system” and tightening eligibility.

Harris himself would later coauthor a report for the institute, with Reform Party leader Preston Manning, outlining their vision For a Canada Strong And Free. The report used language, similar to that used by Sabatini, to argue for prioritizing welfare cuts and more stringent means-testing to end the “‘warehouse of long-term dependency” across the country.

In another institute report, Sylvia LeRoy cited Murray’s 1984 book Losing Ground to argue that “by making it economically feasible for single mothers to remain unmarried, welfare actually increased the rate of out-of- wedlock births.” These children born out of wedlock would soon comprise a welfare-dependent “underclass.”

More recently, in 2019, the institute republished Christopher Sarlo’s 1992 report, The Causes of Poverty. The report also cited Murray’s Losing Ground to explain why, supposedly, Ontario’s welfare programs create “perverse incentives” for “far more illegitimate births and increased poverty and dependency.”  Alongside cuts, Sarlo suggests halting the trend of multigenerational dependency with “remedial programs” and “various kinds of birth control.”

Canadian Social Darwinism

At the time of its publication, the New York Review of Books described Losing Ground as a “new variation on Social Darwinism.” While Losing Ground does not discuss heritability in the same way The Bell Curve does, it still presents an unambiguously bigoted perspective.

In The Bell Curve chapter “Being Poor, Being Black,” Murray claimed that from 1960 to 1980, as communities desegregated and the quality of education broadly improved, graduation rates and life outcomes for black Americans did not. In the footnotes, Murray suggests that this reflects the findings of Pioneer Fund–linked psychologist Arthur Jensen’s book Straight Talk About Mental Tests — specifically his work on “the reality of racial differences in tests of cognitive skills.”

Jensen is best known for his 1969 article, “How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?” which claimed that black people scored lower on IQ tests than white people. Jensen declared that the explanation for these outcomes was about 80 percent genetic. He argued that improvements stemming from school and community assistance programs were negligible. On Jensen’s view, “current welfare policies, unaided by eugenic foresight” would doom “negro Americans” to “ genetic enslavement.”

As an answer to these problems, Jensen wrote:

It is a fact that many different behavioral traits, including those we would identify as intelligence, can be changed through selective breeding in lower animals. There is no reason to believe this does not also hold true for the human species.

His subsequent book Straight Talk About Mental Tests makes similar claims about intelligence and race, albeit without explicitly promoting eugenics.

It is worth stressing here that there is virtually no evidence backing up Murray and his adherents’ central argument. There is no genetic basis for race. There is also no gene or set of genes clearly linked to differences in IQ, even if the existing tests are accurate. Conversely, it is well established that poverty, racism, oppression, and inequality harm children — and adults — and hamper scholastic achievement.

Although IQ tests may accurately measure differences in “heritable” traits, that doesn’t mean that IQs are not also modifiable or mutable. Differences in access to nutrition, socioeconomic status and even “familiarity with intelligence tests” affect IQ scores. All of this, however, means little to Murray and his think tank allies. Their project is not scientific — it is political. Murray claims that anti-poverty programs did not help black Americans but instead led to an explosion in “black illegitimate births.” In turn, this led to an increase in student delinquency, and in “violent crimes among blacks” who “widely rejected the legitimacy of white norms and white laws.” With very few equivocations, Murray proposes “scrapping the entire federal welfare and income support structure for work-aged persons” as a solution.

It’s unclear how this “solution” would result in anything other than deeper poverty for those in need, including the “illegitimate” children Murray is so preoccupied with. Even so, Losing Ground is openly cited as a favorite text among leading Canadian conservatives.

In September 2020, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, previously of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, told the Manhattan Institute that Losing Ground and George Gilder’s Wealth and Poverty were two of the key books responsible for his “political transformation” to the right. In his book Fearful Symmetry, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s director and former federal “Clifford Clark Visiting Economist,” Brian Lee Crowley, cites Murray’s “path-breaking” study repeatedly to explain why welfare has caused a “moral degradation” across Canada.

In a 2004 speech, Crowley cited Losing Ground to claim that the persistence of poverty across Canada results not from austerity, uneven economic development, discrimination or job cuts but from poor people “lack[ing] the set of cultural values which make success possible.” Philip Cross — former Statistics Canada chief economic analyst and current senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute — similarly complimented Murray for explaining how “the social problems in US cities” owe their origins to “government policies” that support single mothers. In Canada, Cross wrote, the main lesson to take from Murray is that “free lunches don’t nourish.”

Closing Off the Future

In 2007, an Atlantic Institute for Market Studies report proposed a radical shift toward standardized tests to weaken the power of Canada’s teachers unions. The study claimed that teachers’ unions were using their “relative strength” as a public sector monopoly to, among other things, increase teacher hiring. As the study argued, “the larger their membership base, the more union dues they collect.”

One of the report’s more disturbing citations pointed readers to VDare founder Peter Brimelow’s tract The Worm in the Apple: How the Teacher Unions Are Destroying American Education. In his book, Brimelow cites The Bell Curve to explain the education system’s “hoggish consumption of ever-increasing resources.” Brimelow claims that too many teachers are being hired to push students “at or below what is considered the threshold of retardation” through the school system.

Last year, in an effort to address concerns about discriminatory practice, the Ontario government responded to long-standing demands that ninth-grade classes, separated into applied and academic streams, be destreamed. In an effort to defend streaming, the Prairie-based Frontier Centre for Public Policy, cited Charles Murray’s book Real Education. The book, published in 2008, effectively applies the lessons of The Bell Curve to education. It argues that IQs are mostly fixed “after children reach school” and that there’s little the system can do to improve a student’s life chances beyond an “assessment of his or her palette of abilities during first grade.”

According to Frontier Centre research associate Caitlin Rose Morgante, Murray’s book explained why putting thirteen-year-olds in both the applied and academic streams together would make “the shortcomings of slower students . . . apparent.” Morgante asserted further:

Embedded in the concern of too many ethnic minorities in the applied stream is the view that the academic stream is always better, and that everyone should go to university. In reality, only a minority of students have the cognitive ability required to attain a proper university education.

All of the think tanks advocating policy from the Charles Murray playbook have been backed by some of Canada’s largest corporate players. They have been clear-eyed about the economic agenda set by their policy papers. They have advocated for social cuts knowing that they would make the poor worse off. But by championing the view that certain people are congenitally inferior, they justify the brutality of austerity measures. In the 1990s, these policies, ensuring the withdrawal of support from people who were already destitute, resulted in misery and at least one fatality. The persistence of these cuts continues to have grim human consequences.

In response to these social deprivations, Murray and his admirers can offer only the dubious comfort that those who will suffer have less “merit” to offer future employers and state administrators. The jaundiced worldview of Murray and his like-minded researchers have found a receptive audience on the right, in Canada and elsewhere, because their work justifies its animating purpose — maintaining and defending inequality, whatever the social cost.