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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Chaos under Heaven

July 15, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Minnesota is under conservative siege. While policymakers push more debt into the future, force even more property tax increases, and cut schools, healthcare, roads and job growth, it’s hard to see a path forward. Have Minnesota’s conservative legislative chamber leaders been reading their Mao Tse-tung, the Chinese communist revolutionary who famously observed that, “There is great chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent!”?

After two weeks of a state government shutdown, conservative legislators seem remarkably pleased with the chaos they’ve caused. Although most of Minnesota shifts uncomfortably as suspended state services’ effects compound, conservative policy advocates couldn’t be happier. Why? They believe that they’re starving the beast, reducing state government’s reach.

Broadly speaking, the idea of limited government is a modern construction. It’s a post-feudal concept, rooted in some basic form of participatory democracy. Limited government is also a cornerstone of today’s contemporary conservative movement. Under normal circumstances, the limited government philosophy can be plotted along a fairly lengthy continuum. Today, however, as we see in Minnesota, policymakers advocating an extreme version have high jacked the concept. They tolerate only their radical interpretation.

The problem with tax intolerance is that it relies on someone else paying. While Minnesota state policy leaders oppose any proposal that increases state taxes, they’re quite happy pushing the dirty work of revenue increase on to schools and communities. Minnesota’s property tax burden has grown by 75 percent in the past eight years. Bolstered by the piety born of plausible deniability, conservative policymakers are willing to drive Minnesota into the ground just to prove their point.

Except, I can’t quite follow the point that they’re trying to make.

Ok, taxes are bad; I get that. But, conservative policy advocates are confusing rhetoric with responsible governance and policymaking. It’s one thing to oppose, broadly, the idea of a complex regulatory and social services safety net. It’s quite another to tear it down as the regulatory environment is a function of property rights, a traditional conservative issue. So, I’m surprised that contemporary conservatives are investing energy and resources into loosening property protections. The rise of war lords reflects the failure of central government to protect its citizens and exercise effective central authority. We see this in sub-Saharan Africa and Afghanistan. We don’t need to see it here.

But, maybe, that’s the conservative public policy objective. They seek instability, creating cover for a radical revisioning and recreation of Minnesota. In order to protect the financial interests of wealthy conservatives, conservative policy advocates have to reduce public confidence in publicly funded systems like schools, libraries, affordable healthcare and regulatory enforcement.

The best way to achieve this goal is to create chaos. Defunding educational, healthcare and social services facilitates a downward performance spiral. That decline causes dissatisfaction. Conservatives juice the dissatisfaction by blaming the very institutions that they’ve undermined. This in turn leads, as we’re experiencing, to a greater loss of confidence.

Suddenly, it’s easier to understand Mao’s point. Conservatives hope to gain by making the situation worse.

Mao was a dominant figure in 20th century Chinese history. He emerged as a leader during China’s rapid shift away from feudalism. China hung on to that particular societal organizational form much, much longer than did western nations. Mao promoted a radical vision for reorganizing China; it only cost tens of millions of lives, billions of lost dollars and caused China to withdraw from global contact for nearly a half a century. Central to his strategy was aggressive confrontation of traditional structures. By helping to create chaos, Mao believed that the Chinese Communist Party’s radical solutions would be popularly embraced. His organization has controlled China since 1949 but at a phenomenal cost to the Chinese people. It’s no model for anyone to follow.

Minnesotans don’t care two whits about political philosophical ruminations. We’re interested in strong schools, affordable healthcare, robust infrastructure and a growing economy. While conservative activists are intently and cheerily “starving the beast,” Minnesota is painfully grinding to a halt. Shutting down Minnesota’s state government doesn’t move Minnesota forward, it creates chaos.

It’s past time for Minnesota’s conservative state public policymakers to embrace a responsible, balanced approach. Pairing difficult budget cuts with modest revenue increases creates a path forward. Realistic compromise is more important than ideological purity. Unless, of course, conservative policy advocates really are following Mao’s lead and are deliberately creating great chaos under heaven.

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  • Daniel Vogel says:

    July 17, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    I was listening to an interview with Paul Farmer on his new book. Haiti after the earthquake and how the NGOs have been ignoring the government which has led to a poorly coordinated recovery.  Since the government is responsible for the infrastructure which provides the clean water and since that has been broken, now cholera is epidemic in Haiti. 

    Haiti’s limited government is what the Republican legislatures are seeking to create in Minnesota.  Everyone who thinks that Haiti is not where they want to live should remember that in November 2012.