Unless we're subjected to another major league game of "double-dare ya" between the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the 2008 session will soon come to a merciful end. With luck, we'll still have a few bucks in our over-taxed pockets and a few freedoms left to enjoy.

But with political food fights the name of the game at the Capitol, it can be hard to see beyond the battle du jour and ask ourselves the big question: Who do we want to be as a people in Minnesota?

To get some perspective on this, it can be helpful to visit a far-away country and keep your eyes and ears open. Though it's hardly graduate-level political science research, I'll offer my recent week in Scotland as a modest contribution to the discussion.

Scotland is beautiful, and its people are the friendliest I've ever met. But the country illustrates the problems that can arise when government takes a central role in people's lives.

One of the first things I noticed when I arrived in Edinburgh, for example, was the price of gas. It's close to $10 a gallon. Scotland is rich in North Sea oil, so what gives? More than two-thirds of that price is tax.

Scotland's gas tax burdens families and businesses in ways that Americans can hardly imagine.

But a strike at an oil refinery near Edinburgh added to the troubles a few days after I arrived. There, 1,200 workers with pension-related demands walked off the job. Their action cost Britain an estimated 50 million pounds a day, and for a time threatened to shut down the Scottish economy.

Scottish unions are powerful, and the government seemed helpless to respond effectively. So ordinary folks were asked to cope with the fallout. They were advised to prepare to conserve fuel by stripping off their cars' roof racks, emptying their trunks, driving below 50 mile per hour, and working at home.

Some of the Scottish people I met were eager to detail the burdens of life in a "nanny state." Among them were the husband and wife who ran the guesthouse where I stayed, and the guide who helped me find my way through the Highlands.

These folks work seven days a week to keep their little businesses afloat. What irked them more than the gas tax and the strike, they said, was what they called "spongers" -- the substantial and growing percentage of the Scottish population supported by the nation's expansive welfare system.

Footing the bill

"Spongers" include able-bodied young men who live off government benefits, and turn down jobs with impunity because "that sort of work is unsuitable for me." They also include legions of young, unmarried mothers who expect taxpayers to support them and their children indefinitely.

The hard-working, middle-class taxpayers I met are proud of Scotland's beauty and rich heritage. But many seem fed up with footing the bill for a bloated welfare state.

"The government talks about redistributing wealth, but it rarely talks about the importance of creating wealth," complained my guesthouse host. "That's what we're trying to do."

As a result, he and his wife told me, they would love to move to America. My guide confided that he's thinking of moving to New Zealand.

Wouldn't it be hard to leave the benefits that high taxes pay for, like government-run health care? I asked them. My guide acknowledged that he likes getting "free" prescriptions, and expressed satisfaction with an operation he recently had.

Other folks, however, lamented what they called the National Health Service's shortcomings. Just before I left Scotland, the London Times ran an article about a child who entered the hospital for a simple procedure, but emerged far sicker. According to the article, the National Health Service's unresponsive, unaccountable bureaucracy too often produces an appallingly low level of care.

Here's what I took away from my trip: A society that encourages personal responsibility strengthens its people's character and fuels prosperity. That's one reason that decisions made at the State Capitol are so important.

Minnesota has many citizens like the couple who ran my guesthouse. The state must seek to encourage them and help them flourish. If it weighs them down, the entire body politic will suffer.

Katherine Kersten • kkersten@startribune.com

Join the conversation at my blog, Think Again, which can be found at www.startribune.com/thinkagain.