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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Nasty, Brutish and Short

May 20, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Last November, conservative State House and State Senate majorities were elected on job creation promises. Since taking office, conservative policymakers aggressively pursued a different, ideologically extreme agenda. I am not surprised. I never thought that they’d do anything other than what they’ve done. Their actions pose an interesting philosophical question: if we expect so little from conservative policymakers, can they let us down?

Central to conservative public policy philosophy is the idea that government is too large. Behind that notion lays the belief that government constrains personal liberty. The larger government grows, conservatives would argue, the greater the threat to liberty’s exercise. Anything constraining freedom must be vigorously resisted.

That, as philosophers say, is one way of looking at human nature. It’s also the minority view.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve read Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher. If I still have my college philosophy class-assigned Hobbes reader, it’s probably buried in box of college books that I will never again read yet can’t quite discard. And like those books, Hobbes refuses to go away.

Hobbes is credited with introducing the “social contract theory” of governance. It’s the idea that governments function with the consent of the governed. The social contract is a mechanism for understanding how people negotiate their own rule. Hobbes, along with fellow English philosopher John Locke and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are the best known of the social contract theorists. Feudal rule’s retreat, succeeded by representative government and the rise of popular, electoral rule, gave Western philosophers a lot to think about.

Hobbes famously declared that, without political order, human life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” He meant that the need for shared, common protection created civil society. In return for community’s protection and opportunity, people consented to live by rules that limited the exercise of unconstrained personal freedom. In other words, absent order, I could steal your cattle, seize your home and kill you without reprisal. Or, you could do the same to me. As free lives go, that one’s nasty and brutish.

Social contract theory, in Hobbes’ view, protects the individual through community. In return for security, free people agree to subject themselves to a Sovereign’s absolute authority. Hobbes preferred a king. That idea held even as monarchies were replaced with representative democracies’ philosophically stronger expression of community.

Minnesota’s conservative policy adherents function within the social contract theory context, not some loosey-goosey libertarian view. They participate in the democracy, work to gain popular support for their ideas, and enact them into law. Contemporary conservatives are no more interested in stealing my cattle than they are in having me steal theirs. If they’re not seeking to disrupt the social order, they must have another motivation.

I embrace a darker interpretation of conservative political and policy behavior. Where conservative advocates claim liberty’s defense and preservation, I see self-interest masquerading as principle. When conservative advocates insist that government is too large, intruding on individual rights, they really mean that they wish to be exempted from collective responsibility.

Last fall, conservatives recognized political opportunity in popular frustration with the slow-to-recover economic downturn. Lots of people felt—and still feel—that America’s and Minnesota’s promised opportunity was passing them by. Conservatives crafted a “jobs, jobs, jobs” electoral advocacy message; progressives offered voters “jobs” but we also offered the frustrated electorate mushy nit-picking and process. Conservatives, pounding on economic discontent, won.

I’m the first person to cheerily acknowledge the difference between campaign rhetoric and policy reality but I never believed, for a second, the conservative “job creation” message. Consequently, I never believed that conservative policymakers would do anything other than what they did: ignore their electoral promises in favor of a deeply conservative policy agenda. And, in the 2011 legislative session, this is exactly what we got.

The past several months have witnessed regular legislative majority disregard for Minnesota’s middle class and working families, the people who need jobs, good schools, affordable healthcare, and safe roads. Rather than invest in Minnesota’s human and physical infrastructure, conservative policymakers are minimizing worker protections, undermining regulation, and generally directing collective investments’ gains into a selectively fewer hands. In other words, it’s an agenda of greed flavored with a hint of tyranny.

As I write, the Minnesota legislature is grinding to a halt. I expect no last minute political compromise because conservative policymakers refuse to yield. All the philosophy in the world doesn’t change the fact that Minnesota’s $5.2 billion deficit must be balanced and that without agreed-upon budget bills, Minnesota’s state government shuts down on July 1. At day’s end, Minnesota’s state lawmakers must find a workable compromise.

We find freedom in the choices created by good jobs, strong schools, affordable healthcare and safe roads. We move Minnesota forward when we focus on what really matters, avoiding extremist agendas in favor of commonly-held values. With only a few legislative session days remaining, I hope our elected leaders find the wisdom to compromise and do what they said  they’d do: create jobs. I may expect little from conservative policymakers but that never robs me of hope.

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