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Sausage making in St. Paul


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Otto von Bismarck, famous for unifying Germany in the 19th century, is famously quoted as saying, “Laws are like sausages; it is better not to see them being made.”

The point, of course, is that politics is not a very clean, rational process; instead, it is dominated by clashing personalities and interests, resulting in deals that only glancingly focus on the public interest. As often as not, the laws that come to govern our lives are the product of an ugly and irrational process instead of the distilled reason of disinterested legislators.

If anyone ever had any doubt of this fact, a visit to the Minnesota Capitol at the end of a legislative session should dispel their illusions.

Individually, most legislators are good and honorable people, but as a group they begin to resemble a rabble moving in a thousand different directions with a million different motives.

From the outside, it usually appears that the political process is totally dominated by the differences between political parties. Here in Minnesota, the governor is DFL, and the House and Senate majorities are Republican. One would think that this information alone would tell an observer enough to make educated guesses about what each side would do.

But from the inside, the black and white differences turn into a rainbow. Republicans and Democrats disagree within their caucuses, legislators with the governor, and agencies with all the relevant lawmakers. Outside influences often don’t focus on winning over a party or a caucus but on the various individuals they need to cobble together a majority and a gubernatorial signature. The number of shifting coalitions that form and dissolve on contentious issues is staggering.

The fissures within caucuses and the various personalities of legislators really come to the fore in issues such as taxpayer funding of a new Vikings stadium and the expansion of gambling. The diversity of opinions and interests that exist on almost all issues explode onto the stage when big money and high stakes are involved.

It is instructive that the two highest-stakes battles at the Capitol—the stadium fight and the expansion of gambling—do not divide legislators along party lines. Some Democrats want a stadium; others oppose it. Republicans, too, divide along unexpected lines. And no group is aligned with the governor. Digging deeper down, “supporters” of a stadium push further divide when it comes to funding sources—indeed, some legislators support a stadium only if it expands gambling, others only if it doesn’t.

The gambling issue and the stadium issue are themselves inextricably tied, because much of the horse-trading among legislators is driven by passion for only one of the issues and indifference to the other.

The particulars of the negotiating really don’t matter in the long run. What does matter is the fact that two tremendously important decisions about spending big money and possibly changing the culture of Minnesota, including how government funds big projects, will be decided in a manner almost wholly divorced from the policy implications of those decisions.

The horse-trading, the particular passions, and the temperament of the government and legislative leaders will all in the end have a more dramatic impact on the spending and collecting of hundreds of millions of dollars than the economics and social implications of the decisions.

That is the nature of politics—and that is why it is like sausage making. Our state and our republic will survive whatever decision is made on these particular issues, but not if we aren’t aware of the deeper problem here.

Government’s messy nature is inescapable. Yet over the past few decades, we have granted more and more power over our lives and our economy to government. The more government controls, the more we are subject to the less-than-ideal outcomes that the sausage-making process yields.

Sausage may be a fine part of a meal, but it’s not a good idea to try to subsist on it alone. In the same way, government is a good or even the best way to deal with some problems, but if it takes over too much of our social or economic life, its weaknesses as an institution begin to undermine the society as a whole.

The lesson I take from watching the end-of-session madness is unsurprising: Government is necessary, but its sway over our lives should be very limited.

David Strom is a fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute at Center of the American Experiment.