“Where were you Friday afternoon?”
My high school principal was giving me a stern look, visibly not amused. It was March of 2001. I was 17, and a few months away from graduating.
For the first time during my five years of high school, I had committed an act of light rebellion against authority by skipping class on a Friday afternoon. And unlike many other students who had done so before me, I had been caught. How did I suffer such a misfortune? Two words: Stockwell Day. My principal had seen me on the evening news, shaking the Canadian Alliance leader’s hand. You heard right: I, a young francophone Quebecker, had skipped class to attend a gathering of “Stockaholics” in Montreal.
My passion for politics started at a young age, even though my parents were not particularly political and we rarely discussed politics at the dinner table. The issue that whetted my appetite was sovereignty, Quebec’s all-consuming political debate since the 1970s. As early as the third grade, I would quiz my parents about their beliefs. Both were staunch federalists, and even though I was a contrary child in many ways, I trusted their judgment on this big issue and became a federalist. In the fourth grade, as class president, I organized a mock referendum debate, where I played the role of Quebec’s federalist leader. In retrospect, subjecting my classmates to my mediocre talent for self-promotion might have constituted an abuse of my presidential powers; but it was so much fun!
My interest in politics grew stronger in high school. Ever the contrarian, I self-identified as a conservative, which caused satisfying consternation to my social studies teachers who mostly held very different political views. I read about politics and history to inoculate myself against their left-wing, separatist rhetoric, even trudging through Conrad Black’s massive Maurice Duplessis biography just so I could argue with my history teacher who, naturally, despised Quebec’s former conservative premier. I enjoyed being a rebel, and reveled in provocation. Who knows, if I had been born in rural Alberta, I might have become a Marxist!
The apex of my ideological awakening occurred thanks to the Internet (props to you, Al Gore!). In October 2000, I was surfing the web in search of my daily dose of right-wing political commentary when I fell upon the website of the Cato Institute, the well-known U.S. libertarian think tank. Having never heard of libertarianism before, I was intrigued by its radical ideas about the role of the state and its relationship to the individual. When I learned that Cato would be holding a “Cato University” seminar in Montreal at the end of the month, I immediately wrote to Tom Palmer, the director of the program and libertarian proselytizer extraordinaire, and requested to attend. He gladly extended me an invitation.
Cato University was an intellectual feast. For the first time, I met ideological kindred spirits and had the opportunity to exchange and learn from them. I learned that what I instinctively believed in was, in fact, a coherent political philosophy. Cato gave me the intellectual ammunition I needed to debate with statists of all stripes.
After the Cato seminar, I returned to school with the zeal of a convert. Exchanges such as the following would often happen during class:
Teacher: This year, our school charity campaign will fund an initiative that aims to preserve and strengthen the right of Ethiopian children to an elementary school education. Yes, Paul?
Me: Actually, education is not a “right”. It’s a privilege. A right to education implies that you can force others to pay for your education, thus depriving them of their property.
Teacher: Right, Paul. In any event, those kids don’t only suffer from a lack of education. They work in inhumane conditions, often for U.S.-based multinational corporations.
Me (yelling): TWO AND A HALF CHEERS FOR SWEATSHOPS!
I’ll admit it: I was an obnoxious “know-it-all”.
Shortly thereafter, I started immersing myself in the writings of libertarian icons. I read Hayek, Friedman, Rothbard, Mises and Rand (although I must confess to never finishing Atlas Shrugged). I also started writing about politics and libertarian ideas for various publications, including student newspapers, the Fraser Institute’s Canadian Student Review, and Le Québécois Libre, a French-language libertarian webzine. I attended CEGEP at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, Pierre Trudeau’s alma mater, and founded the “Brébeuf Student Right” with a few friends. We organized several events featuring guest speakers on such politically incorrect topics as “Why the Kyoto Accord is a Bad Idea” and “Why Socialism is Evil”. This was not particularly helpful to our social lives, and I must admit that maintaining my virginity during those years was not difficult.
Thanks largely to Friedman and Heinlein, a key pillar of economic wisdom is that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” However, students interested in free market and libertarian ideas might have difficulty understanding this, due to the plethora of free think tank-sponsored lunches and seminars they can attend. As a student, I milked these opportunities for all they were worth. Over an approximately five-year span, from when I was in grade 10 to the beginning of my law studies, I attended seminars and conferences in exotic locales such as Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Santa Barbara, and Auburn, Alabama. Attending these seminars deepened my understanding of libertarian ideas and introduced me to new friends from all over the world.
Of all the think tanks and organizations I have encountered during my libertarian journey, the Montreal Economic Institute undoubtedly had the most significant impact in my life. Shortly after attending my first Cato seminar in 2000, I showed up at the Institute’s door on St-Hubert Street in Montreal and introduced myself to Martin Masse, the director of publications. We had an hour-long discussion and I have been involved with the Institute ever since, first as a freeloading student, and more recently as one of their research associates and their corporate secretary.
It was through the Montreal Economic Institute that I met Maxime Bernier, who would later become my first boss. At the time, Bernier had recently become Vice President of the Institute, and had authored a study on the benefits of a flat tax. He would later run for the Conservative Party in the 2006 federal election.
As my interest in libertarian ideas was growing, so was my involvement in partisan politics. During my high school years, I had gotten involved with the Quebec Liberal Party. The QLP had a very dynamic and powerful youth wing, and held a huge convention every summer. I rarely failed to air some radical thoughts on some public policy issue that would reverberate in the media, which raised the ire of some within the party. I was a member of my riding association executive, and was (rightly) perceived as a loose cannon by some of my colleagues, who really did not appreciate the NRA-logoed tie I used to wear at riding association meetings. Eventually I grew disenchanted with the muddled policy positions embraced by the QLP and ceased my involvement with them. When I resigned my position on my riding association executive, I wrote a scathing letter to my MNA informing him that I could no longer support the Liberals’ socialist policies. For good measure, the letter was laden with Ayn Rand quotes extolling the morality of laissez-faire capitalism.
Federal politics was much more satisfying. I volunteered for the Canadian Alliance during the 2000 federal election, helping my local candidate (who did not have the slightest chance of winning) tack electoral signs on telephone poles in the frigid cold. A few years later, I campaigned for Stephen Harper to become the leader of the newly-formed Conservative Party. My involvement was rewarded with a coveted internship in Harper’s office during the summer of 2004, when he was Leader of the Opposition. I volunteered countless hours during the 2004 federal campaign, which the Conservatives ended up losing by a hair. It was a depressing time to be a Conservative: despite the Sponsorship scandal, the Liberals had clung to power. If the Conservatives could not beat them in such favourable circumstances, how could they ever aspire to form government?
But Harper, whom many had thought politically dead in early 2005, won a surprise election victory in January 2006, and became Canada’s 22nd prime minister. Shortly before the swearing-in of the new Cabinet, I received a call from Maxime Bernier asking if I would consider joining his staff as a policy advisor in his Industry portfolio. I jumped at the offer. The Conservative win could not have occurred at a better time. I was completing my last semester of law school. Once I passed my final exam, I headed to Ottawa right away.
Working for Minister Bernier was a dream come true. It allowed me to apply the free market principles I held dear to real-life public policy issues. I developed an expertise in telecommunications policy and regulation, which I use to this day in my law career. More importantly, working in a minister’s office helped me understand how the machinery of government works, which only affirmed my belief that free markets are generally preferable to interventionist government. I will always remember a particular scene: Bernier and I were seated in an airplane and railing against some federal government program or another. A man seated across from us looked at Bernier and, with an intonation akin to that of Sir Humphrey, said: “But sir, you are the government.” We had a good laugh.
Over the last thirty years, Quebec has maintained an ever-expanding welfare state financed by debt and equalization payments. It has instituted social programs that no other Canadian province – no matter how rich – considers within its means. Such runaway government spending has come at a steep cost: economic stagnation and the largest debt load in Canada.
Quebec’s few fiscal conservatives have done our best to stand athwart history (alongside W.F. Buckley) yelling “Stop”; but to little avail, until recently. Last year’s election of Philippe Couillard as premier of Quebec on a platform of lower spending, less debt and freer markets, and the apparent rising fortunes of the federal Parti Conservateur of late, has given us hope that the province’s political culture is finally shifting right. We now dare to dream that conservative anglo-Canadians will soon lay off attacking Quebec for its profligacy, and instead focus on our spendthrift neighbour, Ontario.
Paul Beaudry is a lawyer based in Ottawa. He previously worked as senior policy advisor to the federal Minister of Industry, Maxime Bernier. Paul also serves as research associate and corporate secretary for the Montreal Economic Institute