They called them the Robber Barons: the American industrialists who fundamentally changed the American economy through their innovations in fields like petroleum (John D. Rockefeller), finance (J.P. Morgan), steel (Andrew Carnegie), and transportation (Cornelius Vanderbilt). They were the great predators of humanity who ripped the poor’s guts out during the Gilded Age and then tried to ease their consciences and atone for their sins by establishing universities and charitable foundations.
Or so the story goes. In our 2020 book, Deirdre McCloskey and I explained how what we call The Bourgeois Deal, which effectively says, “Leave me alone to experiment and innovate, keeping the handsome profits when I’m right and bearing the loathsome losses when I’m wrong, and by the time all is said and done, I will have made you rich.” Over the long run, the Robber Barons’ biggest beneficiaries have been people like us: not incredibly wealthy by contemporary standards, but richer than Croesus in terms of the food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, and creature comforts available to us.
Twenty-first century Canada has its own “Robber Barons” who were, as a matter of fact, humanity’s great benefactors. Examples include Mike Lazaridis, one of the founders of Research In Motion and inventor of the Blackberry, Shahrzad Rafati (founder and CEO of Broadband TV), Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss, and hockey star turned coffee-and-doughnut icon Tim Horton. Their crimes? Coming up with new ways to communicate, enjoy the great outdoors, and enjoy one another’s company. With enemies like these, it’s not clear we need friends.
Lazaridis was born in 1961 in Istanbul. As tensions between Turkey and Greece mounted, his family moved to Canada and settled in Windsor, Ontario, in 1966. At age 12, he was given an award for reading every science book in the Windsor Library. Lazaridis would attend the University of Waterloo, but after he and some of his compatriots won a contract to develop software for General Motors in 1984, he dropped out. In 1999, Research In Motion introduced the Blackberry, which came into its own in 2002 and became a status symbol for those important enough to be connected all the time and a harbinger of the 24-hour connected world to come (it was nicknamed the “Crackberry” because of the almost overwhelming temptation to check messages all the time).
The Blackberry was at the forefront of a communications revolution, and it was one of the most important innovations of the early 21st century. Lazaridis got the Ernest C. Manning Principal Award in 2002 (which he shared with his RIM colleague Gary Mousseau). That year, the Globe and Mail recognized him as Canada’s Nation Builder of the Year. In 2005, he made Time magazine’s List of 100 Most Influential People, and he was named a Fellow of the Royal Society (London) in 2014. While Microsoft’s Ken Wood called him “a modern Leonardo da Vinci,” even Lazaridis’s brilliance couldn’t ensure long-run market dominance as the Blackberry was eventually succeeded by iPhones and Android devices. Lazaridis has devoted a lot of his time and energy to venture capital and philanthropy, running the Quantum Valley Investments Fund, funding the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo (where he served as chancellor from 2003-2009), and giving a substantial gift to Wilfrid Laurier University’s business school, which is now named in his honor.
Broadband TV founder and CEO Shahrzad Rafati is another cutting-edge Canadian innovator. Born in Tehran, Iran, in 1979, she moved to Vancouver and earned a BSc in computer science from the University of British Columbia. She helps content creators distribute and monetize their work, and Fast Company has called her one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business. Her company boasts of innovation and leadership in gender parity, noting among other things that her company has no gender pay gap.
Canada Goose CEO Dani Reiss did not build his company from the ground up, but he is nonetheless an innovator and an entrepreneur who has managed the family business successfully. The grandchild of Polish immigrants, he was born in 1973 and eventually became the CEO of the company his grandfather founded. In the 1970s, when they invented a new down filling machine, they moved very explicitly toward premium down jackets. Their strategy both maintains a sense of exclusivity–they are “Not afraid to be sold out”– and appeals to national pride by taking a lead in the “Made in Canada” movement. Reiss does not see Canada Goose as a fashion brand, and their products prize functionality and quality above all else. In 2011, he was named Ernst & Young’s Ontario Entrepreneur of the Year, with the award press release noting that “Canada Goose has built its reputation on core values of best-in-class quality, functionality, authenticity, and technical innovation.”
The final entrepreneur I want to consider is a name synonymous with Canada: Tim Horton. He was born in 1930 and holds the Toronto Maple Leafs record for consecutive games played with 486 straight from February 11, 1961 to February 4, 1968. Professional hockey players of Horton’s generation did not have the enormous contracts they enjoy today, so they often worked in the offseason (Horton worked for Leafs owner Conn Smythe’s gravel company, for example). Horton was a serial entrepreneur who started restaurants in Scarborough and North Bay and a car dealership in Toronto. In 1964, he opened his first Tim Hortons coffee and doughnut shop on an Ottawa street in Hamilton, Ontario. In addition to coffee, they featured two of his creations that became Canadian culinary staples: the Dutchie and the apple fritter.
These are hardly the stories of hardened enemies of society. Their “crimes” are like those of the American Robber Barons: They found new ways to give people goods and services they wanted at prices they were willing to pay. Discovery is key, and specifically discovery tested against people’s willingness to pay. I very much doubt that a Canadian central planner in 1964 would have said that Canadians need new kinds of doughnuts or another place to buy coffee. Canadian hoi polloi voted for these, rewarding Tim Hortons with profits saying “Do more of that.” And he did.
No doubt, they had and have their problems, and they might not pass libertarian purity tests. Lazaridis benefitted from a government grant, most libertarians don’t care about the gender pay gap as such, paying extra for something just because it’s made locally doesn’t enrich society on net, and Tim Horton died after wrecking his car while intoxicated in 1974. There is none righteous, no, not one. The Bible tells me so. As Tyler Cowen points out, however, businesspeople sin because they are businesspeople, not because they are businesspeople. And in any event, most of their critics hate them for their virtues, not their vices: They are somehow blameworthy because they have found ways to cooperate successfully with people around the world. They might not give people what they should want in my eyes as a sophisticated observer and critic, but they give people what they have decided they do want as measured–and this cannot be repeated often enough–by their willingness to vote for smartphones, premium jackets, and doughnuts with the fruit of their labor.
You might have noticed how immigration plays a role in all of these stories. Canada might not be a free market paradise, but then again, nowhere is. Canada ranks near the top of the Economic Freedom of the World Index, and it has certainly embraced the Bourgeois Deal more vigorously (or less reluctantly) than Turkey (Lazaridis’s homeland), Iran (birthplace of Shahrzad Rafati), and Poland (where Dani Reiss’s ancestors came from). Compared to most of the world and almost all of history, Canadians have left innovators alone, and they have made us rich.
This article is based on an online Public Policy Seminar I presented for the Fraser Institute titled “Business is Not a Criminal Enterprise” on February 10, 2022. Sources include this article on Lazaridis from the Canadian Encyclopedia, this article on Canada Goose from Canadian Business, this article on Shahrzad Rafati from the World Economic Forum, and this article on Tim Horton from the Canadian Encyclopedia.
This article, Leave Me Alone and I’ll Make You Rich, Eh? Four Canadian Innovators and Their Achievements, was originally published by the American Institute for Economic Research and appears here with permission. Please support their efforts.