Well, what the heck. If you’re a Minnesota conservative, you must learn to keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. So I shan’t get bent out of shape when Dane Smith, in the populist voice of the people, says it is “emblematic of our recent penury” that there is scant funding or interest in Minnesota’s Sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of our statehood (“Scrimping on the Sesquicentennial: A sign of the times,” MinnPost, Jan. 17).
After all, says Smith, and clearly Smith is no ordinary man, “a lot of Minnesota history is probably not a helpful thing for anti-government conservatives.”
The fact is, says Smith, Minnesota has a uniquely progressive history. It was one of the first states to adopt an income tax, one of the first to invest generously and equitably in public education and other public goods. Its leaders were groundbreakers in, among other accomplishments, advancing the economic condition of ordinary farmers and laborers, civil and human rights.
So what happened to that progressive attitude?
I mean, far be it from me to extol the virtues of old dead white Scandinavians, Irish and Germans. Being a conservative, I’ve been warned about viewing history from a Eurocentric perspective — but Smith knows his history and presents us with an impressive list of progressive accomplishments. I say that with the appropriate nagging sense of guilt for, as I have also been warned on many occasions, to take pride in accomplishment is to ignore the backs upon which that accomplishment was achieved.
But then, perhaps, Smith, who knows his history, is making the case for Minnesota exceptionalism. I mean heck, income tax, equitability in public education, advancing the conditions of ordinary farmers and laborers and human rights. All good stuff. All very progressive.
Which brings me back to the question: So what happened to that progressive attitude?
Income tax now a weapon of mass desperation
Take the income tax, a progressive idea. When did it morph into a weapon of mass desperation? When did the progressive idea of the wealthy helping to provide for the needs of the community become the reactionary idea that wealth is evil? Where did the notion arise that we should tax the rich not just to meet the needs of the community but to supply its wants, desires and whims as well? When did the term “public good” lose all definitional credibility?
Why are the progressives that fought so hard for children of color to receive a good education now standing in the doors of failing government schools telling the children and grandchildren of those children that if their families are poor, they can’t have school choice? Call me crazy, but defending a failing system against educational opportunity for kids doesn’t sound all that progressive.
But then I’ve never really been in tune with what sounds progressive. Smith says “advancing the economic condition of ordinary farmers and laborers” is progressive. Referring to an entire class of people as “ordinary” implying they are in need of beneficent government largess sounds a little condescending to me. But then being a conservative, I’ve never regarded creation of a permanent penury class as particularly emblematic of true progressivism. Advancing the human right to lead a productive and meaningful life — that’s truly progressive, isn’t it?
Somewhere along the way in Minnesota history, progressivism stopped being the voice of the voiceless and became the bullhorn of a political elite who, apart and above the ordinary, would manage our lives, control our liberty and more appropriately direct our pursuit of happiness.
So, in the end, I find myself agreeing with Smith — maybe we should throw a few more bucks into the Sesquicentennial party fund. Perhaps more than just anti-government conservatives need a refresher on the history of progressivism.
Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the St. Paul Pioneer Press Opinion page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute.
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