Column: Defining what true liberty means
By JOHN VAN HECKE, Minnesota 2020
ST. PAUL — This past year taught every Minnesotan about the high cost of conservative public policy consequences. The 2013 state legislative session revealed not just the logical results of ten-plus years of policy misdirection but, critically, the time and expense of clawing our way back to a balanced approach. Ten years of unraveling can’t be repaired in a single legislative session.
Examining the past decade’s policy outcomes, I can’t shake the feeling that conservative ideology isn’t so much an ideology as it is an expression of barely disguised self-interest. I know that’s a strong expression, and I don’t mean to throw rhetorical bombs while sprinting away from debate. But, I can’t reconcile conservative ideology with conservative public policy outcomes.
The conservative promise, at its core, is the promise of freedom. Or, more exactly, it’s the promise of liberty, of a free life essentially unrestrained by government. Conservatives — and I’m the first to acknowledge the many, many different types of conservative philosophy and ideology, recognizing that there’s no singular strand- regard government suspiciously in the same way that they regard the marketplace uncritically. Which is interesting because progressive come at this equation from almost the completely opposite side. We tend to see government as an ally and a solution while viewing the marketplace through a dark, skeptical lens.
Liberty is best understood, perhaps, as the right to be left alone. That finds resonance regardless of political orientation. As long, the argument goes, as my actions don’t negatively affect your life, my liberty rights protect me from government-enforced conformity. It’s a seductive notion because it neatly narrows behavior, suggesting limited consequences.
Smoking, for example, carries clear personal and public health outcomes. Cigarette smoking, in particular, shortens the smoker’s life and compromises the smoker’s health in the process. The research data supporting smoking cessation are conclusive. Quitting immediately improves health even after prolonged smoking. While the smoker’s remaining life may be compromised, it’s never a lost cause. The conservative argument dismisses public anti-smoking efforts as intrusions on both individual liberty and marketplace commerce. Under the conservative ideological frame, the smoker’s liberty is more important than the community’s interest.
If this were purely a philosophical debate, I might be more receptive. Negating community interest, however, is an unworkable solution. Research data again demonstrate smoking’s consequences. Second-hand smoke, the individual smoker’s byproduct, create a substantially elevated cancer risk. The smoker may be using the liberty argument shield, but the same protections are unavailable to the collectively compromised. The real fly-in-the-ointment moment comes when smokers expect publicly-funded, end-of-life health care. With individual financial resources exhausted, the smoker suddenly turns to community resources. Liberty, it seems, doesn’t guard against poor choices’ consequences.
Economists call this sudden draw on community resources, the free-rider problem. It occurs when an individual gleans benefit from collective investment or a collective asset without bearing an equal share of the investment’s cost. If half a city block’s residents pay to have their alley plowed while the other half don’t pay but enjoy snowplowing’s benefit, the nonpaying half are free riders. In public policy terms, the free rider effect is witnessed when public investment’s beneficiaries seek to avoid paying for successive generations’ schools, roads, bridges, affordable health care and workforce development.
Liberty, under these conditions, isn’t liberty in a philosophical sense. Instead, it’s selfish, self-interested behavior asserting privilege without obligation. Twenty-odd years of conservative public policy messaging basically boils down to asking how little can Minnesota do for families without incurring costly, disruptive social breakdown.
Smart public policy flows from questions regarding need and outcome. In public education, for example, rather than beginning deterministically, meaning that we’ve decided the answer without examining data, the best question asks, are we happy with schooling’s outcome? Since Minnesotans ask our public schools to assume multiple missions simultaneously, this is actually pretty tricky. Similarly, addressing need and outcome is a terrific way of applying liberty’s principle.
Liberty’s pursuit is not a singular path. Conservative policy advocates would like us to believe that liberty’s achievement is only realized by doing less through collective action. I argue the opposite. We have more liberty, individually, when we invest and work together. We are stronger together than we are alone. Minnesota’s history repeatedly teaches us that we gain more by working together. And, in the words of the late US Senator Paul Wellstone, we’ll all do better when we all do better. That’s a liberty worthy of the term.
John Van Hecke is the executive director and a fellow at Minnesota 2020.