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Minnesota 2020 Journal: Where’s All That Personal Responsibility?

August 19, 2011 By John R. Van Hecke, Executive Director & Fellow

Conservatives advocate a public policy vision based on less government and more personal responsibility. When given the chance, they’ve certainly created less government but personal responsibility’s increase remains elusive and strangely absent.

I grew up in a fairly conservative community. Walnut Grove, situated in southwestern Minnesota’s Redwood County and a stone’s throw from Cottonwood, Murray and Lyon counties, is not a hotbed of liberal activism. At the same time, it’s not a right-wing, goofy social agenda, extremist place either. Conservative, in this context, means working hard and owning up to one’s responsibilities without exception.

In public policy and public administrative arenas, that perspective translates to frugality, conservation and hard thinking about public investment decisions but not a dismissive rejection of the public’s collective role, expressed through government.

Walnut Grove, population 871, is a small, southwestern Minnesota farming community. It’s no exaggeration to say that everyone pretty much knows everyone else. The mayor and two city council members graduated from Walnut Grove High School a few years ahead of me. City Councilmember Leonard McLaughlin taught all of us shop and industrial arts before retiring.

Walnut Grove doesn’t have a swimming pool. Never has. During the summer, the city organizes a school bus to transport kids to neighboring Westbrook’s public pool, ten miles south, twice a week for two hours. Bus tickets cost a dollar. For budget stretched families, the city offers a work-around. In return for helping city maintenance supervisor Tom Hansen pick up trash and sticks, kids can earn a bus ticket.

This is what passes for big-time government programs in Walnut Grove.

Minnesota’s small towns, like Walnut Grove, have always lived within their means because their means have always been modest. A generation ago, Minnesota’s elected officials created state policy that worked to spread the state’s growing wealth, mitigating the have/have-not disparity. Conservative policy advocates have worked like the devil ever since, undoing this successful measure.

During former Governor Tim Pawlenty’s administration, Minnesota dramatically reneged on its promise to share efficiently collected state revenue with communities. As a consequence, city and county budgets have been cut, services slashed and local property taxes have skyrocketed. Conservative activists are achieving their “less government” goal but at a terrific cost to most Minnesotans.

Conservatives always pair “less government” with “more personal responsibility.” Earlier this week, MPR quoted former Minnesota Lt Governor Carol Molnau in a story on Pawlenty’s withdrawal from the Republican presidential nomination race. Molnau, reflecting on Bachmann’s Iowa GOP straw-poll victory, suggests that Minnesota, based on the 2010 election results, is becoming more politically conservative. "More conservatives, more people who believe in personal responsibility, less government involvement, were elected.”

The suggestion is clear. As government’s role in providing for the community good declines, expanded personal responsibility will replace government. It’s a seductive notion. It’s also flat out wrong.

Minnesota absolutely counts on charitable, philanthropic contributions of time, talent and resources. But, we learned a long time ago that charity-based social service efforts suffer serious systemic drawbacks. Assistance is delivered erratically, inefficiently and, frequently, ineffectively. Yet, this is exactly what conservatives insist that, as a matter of public policy, we should do.

Helping to organize a Red Cross blood drive, the neighborhood clean-up day or the school district’s spring bake-sale fundraiser is very different from providing a special needs child or adult with personal care services. The conservative “more personal responsibility” dictum assumes that cutting state-provided services will cause people to suddenly do more as they realize greater personal responsibility.

Except, that it doesn’t actually work like that.

For example, Minnesota’s state educational funding cuts have reduced inflation-adjusted, per-pupil school payments by 13 percent since 2003. We haven’t experienced a 13 percent increase in school volunteering to make up that difference. The same holds for cuts to affordable healthcare, transportation, and public safety services to name just a few. Volunteering, while essential and inseparable from community strength, cannot replace core community services.

Rather than be tempted by conservative talk, we must see conservative policy for what it is: self-interest masquerading as principle. The conservative “more personal responsibility” policy mantra means that people of modest incomes should pay more and receive less so that Minnesota’s highest income earners can pay less and receive more.

Minnesota, like the nation, struggles with the slow economic recovery. State policy must create opportunity, stability and prosperity. If we focus on what really matters—jobs, schools, healthcare and roads—we move forward. All the personal responsibility in the world is no substitute for a responsible, balanced approach. Less isn’t more; it’s just less.

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  • KJC says:

    August 23, 2011 at 12:13 pm

    Another no nonsense column ... from someone who grew up in rural Minnesota.  Like me. 
    The language pairing “of smaller government” and “personal responsibility” is precisely the pitch of a particular political party.  Notice how you don’t have any problem identifying which one, even though I didn’t name it, did I?
    How can you tell that whether this kind of talk is Principle or Self-Interest dressed up with clever verbosity?  That’s easy.  You lead by example.  So?  Anytime somebody suggests something.. in this case the principle of personal responsibility… and then leaves out saying what new ground they are taking on themselves?  You can bet your bottom dollar it’s just more cover for self-interest.  A real leader would include something like “this xxxxx is what I’m going to take on, in expanding my own personal responsibility” in this kind of discussion.
    This is directly related?  To the people who are always suggesting that cuts, cuts, cuts are always going to fix everything… and when asked what cuts they will take for themselves? There is always silence. 
    WE THE PEOPLE doesn’t mean only “somebody else” should take more personal responsibility or take cuts.  It’s about what YOU will do.  I always measure policy talk by that standard… what are you advocating for yourself to live up to?  Anything less isn’t real leadership, despite how clever or folksy the words used might be. 
    People in rural Minnesota are plain spoken people… they don’t have a lot of time for “complicated” talk.  They are generally too polite to say what they might think of self-interested bluster, but they naturally shy away from it.  Modest people, whose conservatism they apply to themselves.. living by example, I call that real.

  • lisa says:

    August 23, 2011 at 1:13 pm

    I liked this article very much.  I have thought this, but could in no way articulate it as well as he did. Hopefully I can send a few of my right wing friends to this article to give them food for thought.

  • Bernice Vetsch says:

    August 24, 2011 at 9:43 am

    This April 1 letter to the editor of the StarTribune (author Marc Ireland) still makes me smile.  And actually makes more sense than a lot of politicians who push for those with less to get more less. 

    “There are those who hold that it is better to ask those who have more to do less so they can do more, and for those who have less to do more and get less, and for those who have more than less but less than more to do more with their less so they can get more-or-less less, as the lesson is that less is more and more is less, save you have more of more, then less of more is less and more of more is more for the lesser of those with less than more.  More’s the truth, those who so hold are more-or-less lost.”