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A12-0421 In re Commitment of Anderson (Hennepin County)

Politics as work, not ideological posturing

The Minnesota Legislature has opened for business. The governor and members of the Senate and House have been sworn in and have assumed their offices. They are now starting their work to serve the people of Minnesota.

Prospects, it seems, are different for this session. There does seem to be an evaporation of more judgmental and harsh partisanship across the board. Perhaps we have stumbled upon a return to politics as work, not as some truncated form of religiosity in secular guise where standing on principle is the be-all and end-all of representative governance.

Senate Majority leader Tom Bakk said on “Almanac” that he expects the session to end up approving some of what the governor wants, some of what the Senate Democrats want, and some of what the House Republicans want.

Now what is fundamentally wrong with such an outcome?

It does, however, bring to the fore collaboration and compromise. But, again, in representative government what is wrong with that?

The main issues on the Legislature’s table — funding transportation and education — are more bread-and-butter issues than the ideological desires that have divided and still divide the right from the left. Our culture war has faded in intensity this session, it seems.

Issue of funding can be approached as matters of degree — of more or less — so that win/win arrangements can give something each to different interest groups. They are not inherently zero-sum conflicts where a moral win for one protagonist is a clear and hurtful moral defeat for another.

And, where such practical issues are at stake, the stakes associated with victory or defeat are smaller. The good will and judgment of those we disagree with do not have to be impugned. There is room for reasonable differences in priorities and selections of outcomes and facts to use in arguing for one’s position.

At law, we call this decision-making the application of a reasonable person standard: Reasonable people can come to different conclusions and still be within a zone of acceptable due care and applied mindfulness. In business law, this is called the “Business Judgment Rule” where no second-guessing after the fact is allowed.

Such a blending of differences is perhaps the test of civilized society. A test that was failed in last week’s murders of cartoonists in Paris. Those wanton and heinous killings out of a misplaced idolatry call us to guard against arrogance and pride that we can ever be an ultimate judge of anything, that principle is so important that we can impose our will on others to the extreme of aggressive war.

If collaboration as an ethical norm separates civilization from barbaric violence, then some degree of compromise is also the mark of human advancement.

The great German sociologist Max Weber, who gave us so much of our current thinking about legitimacy in authority and governance, after World War I once warned his people about the rise of fanatics through their democratic political system. His warnings came true with Hitler and the National Socialists, under whom politics became extremism in the name of high ideals. High at least to some.

The rule of law was discarded and democracy became tyranny of the party with purity of culture its objective.

Weber contrasted such a politics with the politics of work. He called it “politics as a vocation.” By this he meant the hard work of dealing with others and making compromises and fitting one’s ideals into a wider reality.

Collaboration takes work. When other people are involved, when civilization is present, we can’t get our way as if we were a God, a spoiled child, or a tyrant. Our principles may be absolute to us but we are not alone. To honor them, we need to find ways and means of making them meaningful and non-objectionable to others. This takes engagement and time. Dealing with other people has its rough edges, for not everyone likes us or supports what we want.

The politics of work is not like a crusade, not like a march on Selma in 1965.

Lyndon Johnson was an expert in the politics of work. He wanted to end Jim Crow and he knew he had to work at it, not order it, not decree its abolishment, but win over others in the federal House and Senate to approve a law. He knew, according to recent writings by his aide Joe Califano, that to win over elected representatives in the Congress, he needed to have “the people” or at least a lot of them speak out for change and so he encourage the march from Selma to Montgomery. (On a personal note, I flew down from Boston to take part in the end of the march.)

So to get better transportation and education in Minnesota, part of the work necessary for the governor and our legislators in those efforts will take place in the Legislature and part out among the “people,” whoever they are.

Here we are speaking of the need to articulate a “public good” that deserves financial support from the taxpayers.

To find such a public good, the Democrats speak of making an “investment” that will repay us with better economic outcomes in the future.

But using transportation is also a private good for individuals and private businesses.

Education is similarly a public good for the society at large as well as a private good for individuals who benefit from enhanced learning and skill training.

So, if transportation and education are simultaneously public and private goods, who should pay for them? If they are public, then our habit is to charge taxpayers. If private, our practice has been to put the good up for sale in a market.

Transportation and education are more services than goods. They serve multiple goals. With good transportation society benefits from lower costs for the production of goods and services and from larger scale of enterprise. With good education, society benefits from higher economic productivity of labor and new inventions and better quality services and less risk in all undertakings. But, again, individuals can make more money for themselves and be happier in their lives with good, convenient, and cheap transportation and good educational opportunities.

If multiple parties are to be served, why not let everyone who will benefit pay some fair share? The public should contribute, but so too should the individuals who stand to benefit.

This dual financing arrangement would reflect collaboration and compromise. No undue burden would be placed on the taxpayers or on individuals.

The fairness issue arising from inequalities of wealth with which to purchase access to good transportation (tolls or other usage fees like a gas tax) or education (tuition) can be addressed as we have often done with targeted subsidies to those with few assets and low incomes.

Figuring out the best way to balance payment for joint public and private services is not a matter of absolute principle one way or the other but a common sense quest for reliable and fair allocation of effort.

Hammering out such a solution is the noble democratic politics of work.

Stephen B. Young is executive director of the Caux Round Table, an international network advocating ethical principles for business and government.

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