A year ago, when U.S. Rep. John Kline was making news by refusing to earmark projects for the 2nd District, Margaret Donahoe, director of the Minnesota Transportation Alliance, voiced her opposition to Kline’s proposal. ‘If the money doesn’t go to Minnesota for Minnesota projects,’ she said, ‘it will go to other states for their projects.’ Typical liberal, right? Maybe so, but in an interview at the National Governors Association meeting, conservative Gov. Tim Pawlenty also voiced the if-I-don’t-somebody-else-will argument vis-a-vis the stimulus package, albeit a bit more appetizingly — he served it up with a slice of pizza.

Asked by National Review Online reporter Jim Geraghty if he were not being hypocritical for criticizing the stimulus bill but then taking the money, Pawlenty pointed out that Minnesota gets only 72 cents back for every tax dollar sent to Washington.

“I say,” said the governor, “when you’re paying to buy the pizza, it’s okay to have a slice.” Besides, Pawlenty added, liberal Democratic governors who oppose federal programs such as No Child Left Behind still take federal funding. “So I’m wondering,” said the governor, “why that standard is only being applied to conservatives.”

On the SCSU Scholars blog, my Minnesota Free Market Institute colleague and St. Cloud State University economics professor King Banaian boiled Pawlenty’s argument down to its essentials: Others are taking money, so why shouldn’t I; since I have to pay anyway, I might as well get my stuff. “We wouldn’t accept this logic from our kids,” wrote Banaian.

Ed Morrissey, writing at the conservative blog Hot Air, cut the governor a little more slack. “Refusing the money on principle sounds noble, but in effect will amount to a double taxation on Minnesotans,” Morrissey wrote. “I just don’t think that Pawlenty’s argument is as bad as some might think.”

Morrissey nonetheless recognizes the conservative principle at stake: The federal government should quit taking so much money from the states — and then we wouldn’t need to worry how much of it comes back, because it won’t have left in the first place. “Of course, that’s an entirely academic approach to the question,” he added. “In reality, the money will come from Minnesota, and the question is whether the Pizza Principle applies.”

There in a nutshell, or a pizza pan, is the conservative dilemma. When do conservatives stand on principle, and when do they sacrifice principle for … what?

“Sacrifice” is a word thrown about more than it is defined. “Sacrifice” is relinquishing a higher value for a lesser value. The idea of “sacrificing for one’s principles” is a nonsensical contradiction. If the governor is willing to sacrifice conservative principles to balance the budget, then balancing the budget by whatever means has a higher value than conservative principle. If not, why sacrifice the principle?

Recently, Mitch Pearlstein of the Center of the American Experiment sent around a provocative e-mail posing a question to Minnesota conservatives.

“Politicians, commentators, and others are talking increasingly about the need for citizens to ‘sacrifice,’ ” Pearlstein wrote. “Specifically, what government services currently and directly benefiting you and your family — be those services local, state, or federal — would you be willing to see curtailed or even ended entirely?”

Eighteen people responded. Pearlstein respectfully noted: “Although to be quite blunt and without intending to offend anyone in any way, the amount of pain implicit in most of these proposed sacrifices seems to be more pinching than wringing. Bluntly put again, this likely is a product of the fact that the kinds of middle-class and more affluent people who participate in exercises like this (unless they’re on Medicare) generally don’t rely terribly much on the kinds of governmental health care and other social welfare programs slated to be scaled back in coming months.”

Sorry, Mitch, but perhaps conservatives need to be offended.

Juxtapose the governor’s “Pizza Principle” and the responses to Pearlstein’s question, and we have a pragmatic sort of conservatism that is both willing to have others pay for a better Minnesota and willing to have others sacrifice for a better Minnesota. That heads-I-win-tails-you-lose position is not a proposition for Minnesotans that inspires confidence in conservative leadership.

A more revealing question than Pearlstein’s “What government services would you be willing to see curtailed?” might have been: “What government services have you, or will you, unilaterally give up?” As there is no virtue in government-imposed charity, there is no virtue in accepting government benefits because, if you don’t take them, somebody else will. There is no virtue in waiting for government to stop loading up your plate before you push away from the table. Perhaps the answer to Pearlstein’s question, and the proper response to the federal stimulus package, is as simple as, “Just say no.”

Craig Westover is a contributing columnist to the Pioneer Press Opinion Page and a senior policy fellow at the Minnesota Free Market Institute.. His e-mail address is westover4@yahoo.com This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

This commentary originally appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer Press Friday, February 27, 2009.