When I was president of the Quebec Employers Council, I interacted with politicians on a weekly basis. One question I typically used to ask them, to make small talk but also to help me figure out with whom I was dealing, was what drove them to enter politics.
One Quebec provincial minister told me she got into politics to "serve her fellow citizens." That is a fine ambition, but still, why politics? Why not social services or medicine or some other profession?
Another politician told me he got into politics to "cut government waste." Again, that's a perfectly respectable goal, but it does not, by itself, constitute a political philosophy.
In my experience, 80% of politicians have no explicit or coherent political philosophy. And then when they do pretend to have one, it's mostly limited to a bunch of cliches and politically correct sound bites. They belong to a party, but they are not governed by any overarching vision of the world, or by fundamental premises that would otherwise guide them.
Of the remaining 20%, sadly, most have a philosophy that is quite unsympathetic to free markets. Consistent defenders of the principles of liberty, such as former U.S. congressman Ron Paul (who was in Ottawa last week to address the Manning Centre conference), can be counted on the fingers of one hand.
But why does any of this matter for business people and for the economy in general, you may ask? It matters because no solid political philosophy means no clear direction.
As a politician, one is subject to so many pressures – and to so many pressure groups. Without an anchor based on explicit values, actually changing things (toward a freer economy) becomes just too difficult, too unrewarding.
Furthermore, without a clear sense of the kinds of changes they want, newly elected politicians full of good intentions soon end up doing whatever bureaucrats tell them to do, as explained in their sophisticated memos.
Major reforms to the welfare state and to how our economy is organized will become inevitable in the coming years.
But in these times of crisis, I fear ugly ideologies like communism, fascism or extreme populism will resurface.
We are already seeing glimpses of such things in Europe.
That is, unless there emerges a critical mass of politicians who truly understand the principles and values of a free society.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.
* This column appears in Sun Media newspapers, published both in several of Canada's key urban markets (Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg and London) and in its 28 community dailies.