Archive Hosted by the AFL-CIO

Minnesota 2020 Journal: When “Too Much” Means “Too Little”

June 28, 2013 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Over the last couple of weeks, Minnesota conservatives have jumped into a number of 2014 electoral contests. These raw, no-holds-barred partisan campaigns reveal very real expressions of public policy vision and priorities. Candidacy announcements directly address active partisans but everyone should take note of the values informing candidates' public policy preferences and priorities.

Conservative policy advocates reliably insist that whatever government is, it’s too much. The budget is too large. Regulations are too many and too onerous. Tax rates are too high. Protections are too protective. The solution to bigness is always smallness. Smaller, lesser government is a conservative article of faith, the answer to every problem.

Yet, conservative rhetoric doesn’t match conservative policy behavior. In other words, conservative policymakers say one thing and do another. This creates a two-fold problem when conservative policy prescriptions become law. The resulting budget cuts and service elimination fall disproportionately hard on low and middle-income earners, undermining social cohesion and family stability. Secondly, the policies’ true goal of reducing tax burdens on high income earners while simultaneously concentrating public benefits into fewer, wealthier hands runs afoul of true believer conservative activists.

Less is more. It’s a modernist design adage advocating minimalist form. In aesthetic terms, minimalism seeks truth’s simplicity, stripping layers to reveal only essential elements. In conservative public policy’s Orwellian flip, however, this notion means doing less for the least among us while doing more for the most comfortable.

The German-American architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was the world’s iconic 20th century minimalist. He embraced and widely proclaimed the motto, less is more. Its origins are rooted in the engineer’s maxim, do more with less. Minimalism, as a design ideal, emerged in reaction to popular, fussy, over-decorated styles that reveled in sculptural decorations as a key design feature. The best known of these is called Beaux-Arts and dominated American public buildings from 1880-1920. Minimalism, deeply influenced by traditional Japanese design, is a reaction to and rejection of the earlier, ornate style. Emphasizing clean, unadorned lines, it sought a harmonious, functional simplicity. A minimalist building is, in other words, exactly what it is, a building and nothing more.

When conservatives argue for a less-is-more perspective, philosophically, they’re not on the minimalist page. The two principal conservative philosophical strains are libertarianism and the prosperity gospel. They are, practically and theoretically, at odds with each other. Government plays a very different role under each construct.

Libertarianism is a political philosophy that places personal liberty above other values, contending that voluntary association is the most powerful, effective expression of free will. Libertarians are distrustful of large government or, really, of any government beyond voluntary association as, they believe, governments are instruments of tyranny. The problem with implementing libertarian principles into daily community life is that liberty, as libertarians envision, is awkward, inefficient and impractical. On the opposite end of the political spectrum, the same criticisms are leveled at communism, socialism and anarchism. Libertarianism is an interesting idea with either no or extremely limited practical application.

The prosperity gospel is a theology asserting wealth’s accumulation is tangible proof of divine favor. It’s a dressed up version of the declaration that might makes right. While the prosperity gospel is a modern phenomenon, it hangs on the same assertion that kings ruled by divine authority. It’s the idea that God picks and chooses, demonstrably bestowing authority on a favored few. The problem with this model as a public policy framework is that it’s a Ponzi scheme. Enrichment comes from manipulating many for personal gain, promising unsustainable growth. It’s a sly justification for directing a disproportionate share of a community’s investments to the wealthy few.

Most conservatives don’t get into the ideological weeds. They simply want what we all want, safe and stable lives for our families, friends and communities. But, the conservative public policy initiatives proposed by leaders undermine that goal, hoodwinking supporters. School spending cuts mean fewer school choices for all families, conservative or progressive. The same holds for affordable healthcare, roads and jobs.

Listening to conservative prospective leaders introduce themselves, I hear both libertarian and prosperity gospel philosophies. The central, inescapable theme, however, is a public policy vision that does less for most Minnesotans. As we’ve witnessed for the past 20 years, policy favoring high income earners doesn’t trickle down; it just widens the gap between rich and poor, making everyone’s lives harder. That’s no path to prosperity, only a predictable slide into oblivion.

Thanks for participating! Commenting on this conversation is now closed.