Too big to compromise or too big to fail?


The Albert Lea-Freeborn County Chamber of Commerce has broken ranks with Minnesota’s wealthiest and most powerful lobby group, the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, over something so basic it can be summed up this way-self interest.

Part One of a Two-Part Series

In doing so, they follow the lead of Crookston, in northwestern Minnesota, which had already taken similar action. And it is possible that Albert Lea may show Twin Cities business people how to define and defend their best interests when issues such as taxation for public safety, schools and public works projects come before the Legislature.

Today we start a two-part series looking at the fragmentation of Minnesota and American society, how power can be harmful when centralized in too few hands, and how we got to this point. Part one looks at how we’ve arrived at the current state of near-impasse in public policies and near-chaos in the political economy. The second part-tomorrow-will bring contemporary issues of special interests home to Minnesota.

The Albert Lea Tribune, highlighted the current break in business special interests’ solidarity in its “Chamber calls on state to meet its LGA commitment,” piece.

The article by Sarah Stultz and Tim Engstrom told how Albert Lea-Freeborn County’s chamber had approved a resolution calling on the Minnesota Legislature to restore its commitment to local government aid (LGA). Albert Lea’s resolution noted that LGA cuts of $1 billion since 2003 have disproportionately hurt cities in rural (“Greater”) Minnesota.

To further drive home the point, on Feb. 2 the Albert Lea Tribune editorialized (“Who does Olson really represent?“) that the state chamber is “out of touch with Greater Minnesota.” It recalled losses of jobs and businesses to fires over the years in its community, and noted the state chamber organization favors cuts in LGA while opposing property tax increases to pay for services such as firefighters.

“Such moves are not good for business. Minnesota cannot cut its way to prosperity,” the editors stated.

This illustrates a problem facing Minnesota and the United States, the most organized society of interest groups the world has ever known. Solidarity in large associations with diverse memberships is not achievable; only through hearing all voices can compromises be reached, and the key word is compromise.

To appreciate where we are today, we must look to thinkers abroad from the earliest formative stages of American society and to early stages of American development.

Self-interest, and more specifically “enlightened self-interest,” comes from a couple of luncheon buddies in old Scotland, namely Adam Smith and David Hume. Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations in 1776 while his sounding board and co-thinker, Hume, was polishing the philosophical concept of “enlightened self-interest.”

While business groups often worship at the shrine of Smith and to his reverence for “markets,” they conveniently ignore Hume and the environment in which both worked. The year 1776 should tell it all – colonists were revolting against the abuse of privilege and abuse of stakeholder interests!

Moving forward, French aristocrat and bureaucrat Alexis de Tocqueville wrote his oft-studied and quoted book, Democracy in America, in 1835. He was fascinated with Americans’ practice of forming and joining associations that sought to combine like interests in the face of any problem or opportunity. Service on juries and participating in voluntary associations taught Americans the ethic of “reciprocal obligation,” he noted, and the democratic virtue of “self interest rightly understood.”

He may have been right about jury duty and other calls to public service. But what may have fallen flat on its face over time is the concept that such service is “self interest rightly understood.”

The great American sociologist, Garrett Hardin, called that into question with his essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, published in Science magazine in 1968. He made the point that modern abuse of the environment is similar to the overgrazing of the common pastures in medieval England. Environmental groups consider his theory as gospel because of such “parables” as overgrazing. But it is equally valid for all such ‘common good’ objectives of the political economy, and not the least being support for public education.

Nonetheless, Americans organize into groups; some gain power, others do not. We keep organizing, as former Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy noted in his America Revisited: 150 Years after Tocqueville (Doubleday & Co. 1978).

Looking back at Tocqueville’s visit to America, McCarthy cited the Frenchman’s observation that “the right of association seems to me by nature almost as inalienable as individual liberty.”

McCarthy routinely saw organizations and their pursuits of self-interests when he served on the Senate Finance Committee. A pragmatic Senator McCarthy was revealed in Albert Eisele’s 1972 book, Almost to the Presidency, in how McCarthy took care of Minnesota constituent interests from iron ore processors on the Iron Range to Investors Diversified Services (IDS) in Minneapolis. On pages 171-172, the highly regarded journalist and author tells how McCarthy came to the defense of 3M Company at a 1963 committee hearing at which Sen. Albert Gore (Sr.), father of the future vice president, complained to a 3M executive that the company’s famous billboards were “cluttering” the nation’s highways.

“‘It just seems to try to popularize a name, 3M.’ Gore said. ‘What does 3M stand for?'”

“A grinning McCarthy interjected, ‘It stands for a lot in Minnesota.'”

It still does. And it still can. But that depends on business and all groups making sincere efforts to find common ground that serves our mutual interests – just as it did in McCarthy’s time.