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So what happened to Minnesota’s progressive attitude?

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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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/21/2008 - 01:14 pm.

    Okay, I get it. Westover doesn’t buy the progressive narrative. Who would if they saw it in such chowder-headed, oppositional terms as he describes?

    The “progressive idea of the wealthy helping to provide for the needs of the community” is still the idea. Wealth is not evil in this progressive’s mind; but a society with a wealth gap that’s trending backward toward Gilded Age America is regressing, not progressing.

    Westover deliberately misunderstands Smith’s use of “ordinary,” too, and attempts to twist it into some sort of class label.

    In this context, it contrasts how individuals benefit from economic growth and government policy compared to corporate farms and big business interests. Smith says nothing about “government largess.” He’s talking about state investment policies that benefit both business interests and the people who live off their own labor instead of capital.

    Minnesota progressivism is not about the either/or choices or the every-taxpayer-for-himself world Westover tries to foist on us. It’s about a state where the economy grows bigger and fairer.

    Speaking as one “fellow” to another, I’d hope Westover would be willing to engage the discussion at that level.

  2. Submitted by Craig Westover on 01/21/2008 - 05:01 pm.

    Chowder-headed? Must be one of those non-oppositional terms like “anti-government conservative.” I’ll assume the level of engagement Mr. Quimby proposes is somewhat north of “chowder-headed.”

    From what Mr. Quimby writes I assume what irks the progressive is not the overall wealth of a society or the relative condition of low-income people in general, but the “wealth gap.” There are two implications to Mr. Quimby’s coveting of his neighbor’s house, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, and his ass that I find disturbing.

    The first is that Mr. Quimby considers a society where everyone has less but a more or less equal amount is to be preferred to a society where everyone has more but some people have considerably more than others. The second disturbing point is Mr. Qumiby’s implication that in the latter society, those with less have some moral right to what belongs to others. That “right” is not necessarily predicated on need – Mr. Quimby is only concerned with the gap. And he offers no definition of “need” or “public good” or just how much wealth he would allow one to accumulate before condemning one to the gilded level of Hell.

    Ironically a few paragraphs later, Mr. Quimby contrasts individual benefit from economic growth and government policy (progressive) with corporate farms and big business. I’d agree with him – government policy shouldn’t favor corporate farms (ethanol mandates and crop subsidies?) and big business (managed health care?). But the common denominator here is government and government power, which I do oppose as a coercive and corrupting power for whoever wields it. But like some overly optimistic Hobbit Mr. Quimby proposes progressives would resist the temptation and use the “one ring that rules them all” of government power for only good (Stalin and Mao?)

    Mr. Quimby talks about progressive policies that benefit both labor and capital. But if I go back to his earlier statement, I infer the purpose of progressive policy is not so much “benefit” as it is equality – if both labor and capital benefit but capital creates more wealth than labor, the progressive would conclude it is bad policy, no?

    And if labor and capital should derive equal rewards what about intelligence? Is it fair that Randy Moss makes millions for catching a football while college professors do not? Or that the Mara family makes millions risking their capital on Eli Manning’s football genes while others choose the safety of 9 to 5, union seniority and a 401K plan and make less?

    “Fair” is another word Mr. Quimby chooses not to define. To conservatives, “fair” is closer to “justice” – to each what he deserves – than to the progressive’s “fairness” as “equality” – to the ant and the grasshopper in like proportion.

    Unfortunately, progressivism – Minnesotan or any other kind – is ultimately about either/or choices. If one’s objective is a defined notion of vision of collective good based on “fainess,” one cannot allow freedom of choice that offers a viable alternative to that vision (new urbanism versus “urban sprawl”?) – people might choose the alternative and spoil the best laid plans. Thus my school choice example, which Mr. Quimby ignores. Wouldn’t denying educational vouchers be an example of government policy supporting a monopoly that keeps children from “ordinary” families trapped in schools that aren’t educating them?

    Progressives of the liberal ilk want to grow the economy “bigger and fairer” in the worst way – and that is precisely how they go about trying to do it.

  3. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/22/2008 - 09:04 am.

    Sorry for the jab. It came from seeing the combination of so many ingredients losing their consistency when tossed in the same pot. Plus, for some reason, I think of seafood whenever I read Craig Westover, aka Capt. Fishsticks.

    Then he does it again, choosing to chop up and cook beyond all recognition what I actually said.

    Neither wealth nor differences in wealth are inherently bad. Nor do I, Stalin- or Mao-like, expect everyone to be equal.

    Beyond that, I will trust any readers who made it beyond his long response to understand the meaning of my original comment.

  4. Submitted by Craig Westover on 01/22/2008 - 10:54 am.

    Okay, Charlie – short and sweet.

    You wrote:

    “Neither wealth nor differences in wealth are inherently bad. Nor do I, Stalin- or Mao-like, expect everyone to be equal.”

    My questions:

    If wealth and differences in wealth are not inherently bad, at what point do they become bad? Surely they must if returning to a Gilded Age is anti-progressive and a bad thing.

    If you do not expect everyone to be equal or ascribe to the same vision, then how much inequality is okay? How much free choice?

    Who decides?

  5. Submitted by Charlie Quimby on 01/22/2008 - 06:20 pm.

    “at what point do they become bad?”

    The amount of wealth is not the issue; it’s when wealth exercises its power to expand and perpetuate its advantage over others without wealth. As a society, we’ve already agreed that slavery and monopolistic practices are unjust, and when we see them occur, we try to stop them.

    I’d suggest that 1) when we see the economy tilt in such a way that wealth in the top percentiles is accelerating upward, 2)incomes are stagnant in the middle and below AND 3) the tax system takes a proportionally higher share from the people in the middle, that’s bad.

    It’s good when the income gap is not widening and the tax gap is closing.

    A progressive view is not about coming in and confiscating wealth. It’s about getting more involved in creating wealth and making that growth accessible to more people. Today, the pie is getting bigger, but fewer people get to hold the spatula.

  6. Submitted by Craig Westover on 01/23/2008 - 12:48 pm.

    Okay – I’ll keep it short an not go into monopolies and the government monopoly on education and potential monopoly and “limited slavery” of universal health care; I’ll stick to your points.

    1) You are still left with the problem of defining when “tilt” occurs. There has always been a class of super rich, and as Kevin Phillips notes in “Wealth and Democracy,” that class has been the one most closely associated with government. Is the problem that rich people have too much money or that government has too much power to sell?
    2) Your point here depends on a causal connection between increased wealth at the top and stagnation in the middle. I would propose that the problem is barriers to the use of capital. When government removes investment capital and channels it into projects with less benefit than the market would provide, it hurts the middle class. The rich don’t need all their discretionary income—true. But the middle class needs the investment capital of the rich more than they need government handouts.
    3) Unfair proportionality is the result of government imposing regressive taxes more than it has to do with the distribution of wealth. Inequities in the tax system are the result of government greed and tax system complexity.

    I would definitely agree that progressivism is about creating wealth and making growth accessible to more people – so is the “popular capitalism” endorsed by conservatives. That being the case, why do progressives oppose individual choice in retirement funding, a combination of health savings accounts an catastrophic insurance, both of which give people control over wealth and the ability to participate in and benefit from economic activity? Why do progressives oppose school choice that enables dollars to flow to the most efficient and effective schools instead of unconditionally supporting a monopoly?

    (You didn’t address the questions of equality or who decides.)

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