An ambitious politician? The horror!

Oh, here's a sexy story. A cabinet minister was caught privately calling a difficult problem "sexy" and an opportunity for career advancement. We journalists would never do that.

Get caught, I mean. We certainly have blunt private conversations about our colleagues' failings and the way certain tragic events make for great copy. And we could not do our work at all if every editorial discussion made it into print.

People in public life are equally unable to function without space for frank private conversation. Especially about the things they must be most smoothly hypocritical about in public.

Would it not be terrifying if politicians' private talk presented the same appalling mix of fake outrage and smothering vacuity as their public utterances?

Defending embattled Natural Resources Minister Lisa Raitt in question period, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said "This minister has been working around the clock to make sure we get a greater supply of isotopes. That's what this minister is doing, that's what this government is doing, not playing cheap politics." But we do not think members of cabinet work around the clock and never sleep, nor do we want them to. Surely the PM doesn't either.

Even if politicians often are as vacant as their more polished utterances suggest, it is no excuse for the rest of us to turn into bellowing buffoons just because a politician has been detected smelling opportunity in a crisis. There are far worse ways to advance a public career than solving problems; watch question period and you'll see what I mean.

It took a ridiculous comedy of errors for Ms. Raitt's infamous remarks to become public.

But honestly, if she does solve the medical isotope crisis, wouldn't you be willing to promote her even if you knew that's why she'd done it?

Just as you'd pay a mechanic to fix your car even if you knew he'd done it for the money.

In perhaps his most famous passage, Adam Smith said: "It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages."

And the same is true of politicians, if we are smart.

Some people honestly think politics is less grubby than private enterprise. Stephen Leacock satirized one utopian socialist for depicting office-holders as "sagacious and paternal ... free from the interest of self and the play of the baser passions" who "work ... as work the angels". But, Leacock snapped, "let me ask in the name of sanity where are such officials to be found?"

Not, clearly, in our Parliament.

In a classic piece of standardized outrage over the Raitt affair, Michael Ignatieff snarled, "The cheapest politics here is to call a crisis a career opportunity." As if he did not treat every Conservative misdeed, real or imagined, as both a massive crisis and a stepping stone toward 24 Sussex. I certainly hope he and his inner circle are aware of what they are doing, and honest about it in private. Cluelessness is not a desirable quality in a politician. Or in a citizen.

In the name of sanity, then, let us take James Madison's advice, in Federalist #51, that to secure liberty and check the appetite of the authorities for power, "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition."

Ambition is part of human nature, especially among those drawn to public life. As Madison also said, "If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary."

Politicians might have us believe they are so exceptionally public-spirited and virtuous that we may dispense with checks and balances in our political arrangements. But to borrow another phrase from Adam Smith, those who make such claims are by no means such fools as those who believe them.

It is the beginning of wisdom in public affairs to reward politicians who solve problems and punish those who do not. That way we harness their mighty ambition to our well-being, instead of prompting it to work for our undoing.

In this case, I grant, Ms. Raitt's instinct for advancement seems to have come unhitched from any functioning instinct for self-preservation. But that's just one more thing I hope, and trust, her colleagues are discussing privately in salty language.

Politicians alert to career opportunities!

Partisans exploit crises!

Ministers backbite!

It's as sexy as rutabaga. So stop the presses .... and don't start them again until we get a grip on human nature, political ambition and the fundamentals of political economy.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson