CROSSING THE DESERT
POLITICS WAS NOT FOR him. He did not want to be part of the politics he’d seen practised in Ottawa. But was there any other kind? He would find out.
Stephen Harper’s year in Ottawa had not been wasted. Before his involvement in the 1984 elections, he had no interest in a career centred on Canada and Canadian issues. He was attracted to the world. He’d wanted to be a diplomat, representing Canada abroad. But now that he had seen Parliament in action, he had observed how the politicians failed to deal with the country’s most pressing problems. He wanted to understand those problems and find their solution. The career path to fit his obsessions was the academic life. So, in June 1986, he was back in Calgary to work on a master’s degree and then a Ph.D. in economics. Eventually, from a position in a university, he would develop and disseminate his own proposals on public policy.
The last thing on his mind was to become a member of Parliament. So says Jim Hawkes: “At that age I think he would have said very clearly he wouldn’t ever want to be an elected member. I think he saw up close the kind of lifestyle that it was, the kinds of things that you had to do — sit for hours, sometimes months at a time, for people to reach consensus. It was a much clearer path, something he knew more about, being a university academic. It was something that he could do and do well, and you could still have influence from that kind of a platform. That’s really what he came back to Calgary to do.”
Cynthia Williams is equally certain. “I don’t think he ever wanted to be on camera. I’m sure of it. He liked being behind the scenes. I think he always believed that he could find the candidate that he could get behind, and work for that person. I think he saw himself as an economist. There’s a problem, now here’s an answer, nothing to whine about, and let’s just get it done. And you can’t do that in Ottawa. All kinds of people have to be talked to, and feelings worked out — he would have just wanted to get it done.”
Harper was at heart a political economist, as Cynthia Williams confirms. “His interests were economics. He’s always believed that if you have strong financial management, then you can do all those other things that you want to do. With a good economy, you have more money for the arts, more money for social programs. I think he has always believed in the individual, too. He’s always believed, get out of the way of the individual, don’t take so much off their cheques with taxes, and let society make the right choices.”
So, at the age of twenty-seven, Stephen began the life of a graduate student. But he would not wait until the end of his studies to develop his own views. He’d worked in the real world for three years after high school before returning to university for his first degree. He had then seen real politics from the inside. He was a mature student in every sense, and a quick study. He could not be content to absorb what his professors told him, read what they recommended, write papers, and get good marks, then get a good job in a good university. He was beyond that. Compulsively analytical, his character made him unable simply to play the game by the rules set by others. He had to know why and why not.
And so he now set off on a personal pursuit that was parallel to his studies. He began a vision quest that would soon lead him far from where he began. He deliberately entered into the labyrinth of human thought, down through the ages, on the human and political condition. He enrolled in a course on the history of philosophy and began systematically reading his way through the works of the great philosophers. Then, in one economics course, he asked his professor to recommend the great classical works in the field, the ones he should read to form a solid foundation. He was shocked when he was told, with a wink: “Steve, no one really reads the classic texts any more. We may talk about them, but we don’t actually read them.” In fact, Stephen set about reading Adam Smith, the exponent of the “invisible hand” that guides the marketplace. He read David Ricardo’s Principles of Economics and Taxation, in which the economist argued that international free trade was the best policy because all would be best served when each specialized in the products where each enjoyed a comparative advantage. He read the classical economists, but also the social and political philosophers David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Jeremy Bentham.
He was on his own journey.
From the Hardcover edition.