There is an infallible test for gauging the weight of a politician's words: if you can imagine him saying the opposite, then his statement is significant; if you cannot, it is just so much flummery. Applying the test to yesterday's policy address, which Donald Tsang Yam-kuen headlined 'Proactive, Pragmatic, Always People First', yields some interesting results. For example, it is hard to imagine any politician standing up and promising always to put people last. They may think it, they may feel it, but they will never say it - at least not in public. So the 'always people first' bit of the title is just meaningless drivel. But the 'proactive' and 'pragmatic' bits are not. After all, it is entirely possible to imagine a politician pledging government that is 'responsive and principled'. In fact, it is highly likely a large proportion of Hong Kong's population would prefer precisely that to an administration that is proactive and pragmatic. There are excellent reasons why governments should not try to be proactive and pragmatic, at least as far as the business community is concerned. Once they decide to be proactive, governments begin to think they can pick economic winners. That tempts them to start investing public money in their chosen sectors. The trouble is, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that governments have a greater aptitude than entrepreneurs for hitting on successful business ideas. They may be no worse, but that is small comfort. Plenty of entrepreneurs make lousy business decisions. The difference is that when they do, they go bust. When government officials make bad calls, they just throw more of our tax dollars at the problem in an effort to save face. Pragmatism, too, can be an unattractive trait in government. For the most part, businesses prefer governments with a consistent set of principles. You know where you stand with them, which is important when making investment decisions. Happily, there was relatively little proactivity in yesterday's address. And what pragmatism there was stood testimony to the political expediency of inaction. Instead, Mr Tsang was long on verbosity. At one point he declared 'in collaboration with the business community, the labour sector and the professional sector, we are continuing our deliberations with a view to reaching a consensus, after which we will draft a practical and feasible action agenda'. To do what exactly, he neglected to say. Mr Tsang's mission was clearly to avoid mentioning anything remotely controversial ahead of his expected reappointment as chief executive next year. He steered clear of his administration's proposed goods and services tax altogether. Hong Kong's competition policy got only two indirect mentions. Legislation on a minimum wage was shelved for two years. Much of Mr Tsang's speech dealt with improving education and reducing pollution; safe suggestions that everyone agrees are desirable. Nevertheless, there were troubling signs. Mr Tsang paid lip service to the 'big market, small government' principle and denied any change of the government's long-standing policy of 'positive non-interventionism'. Yet his speech hinted strongly at interventionist yearnings. Mr Tsang spoke of 'the need to define the role of the government in economic development' and called for 'pragmatic and concrete discussions on the government's role in various economic sectors'. He described his government's eagerness to invest in industries as diverse as communication technology, supply chain management, automotive parts and textiles 'where Hong Kong has a comparative advantage'. This sounds an awful lot like picking winners. It should be the government's job to establish regulations that ensure everyone in business is treated fairly. It should not be the government's job to go into business in its own right. Business people are subject to the discipline of the market. If they make bad decisions they risk going bust. The government is under no such discipline, and it runs no such risk. When officials make poor decisions, they simply end up throwing good money after bad. That is why the government has no business going into business.