Publius

Publius

Is a government that can shut down preferable to one that can’t?

In the midst of the current US government shutdown, both sides of politics have seemingly forgotten that the founding document on the nation was born in compromise. EPA/Shawn Thew

How worried should we be that the government of the world’s largest economy, military, and democracy has shut down? Let me suggest two responses: 1) worried and 2) reassured.

Reasons to be worried

Compromise is the art of democratic politics. Governments that can’t do it are either tyrannies or dysfunctional.

The capacity for compromise was a hallmark of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia (May-September 1787). Small states, like Rhode Island, were concerned the new system would institutionalise large state power. New York would get to call the shots.

The impasse almost prevented the United States’ birth. The solution was the first great compromise in American history. In the Senate, small states got the same amount of power as the large: New York and Rhode Island both got two senators each. Large states, though they had to cede power in the Senate, got the loudest voice in the House. States have representatives proportional to their populations.

The US Constitution was thus born in compromise. It is a fact that both sides, particularly Republicans (though Obama will hardly go down in history as the compromiser-in-chief), seem determined to forget. Instead, rigidity of position is privileged over flexibility. Ideological purity is prized more highly than empathy with opponents.

Few democratic governments can long survive on this basis. They become sclerotic or they are invaded by more efficiently autocratic neighbours – yet again, America’s geography will preclude this fate.

What must China think? A government shutdown is a gift to Communist Party propagandists. “Look at how America squanders its wealth and prestige for the sake of an illusion of democratic competition.” The people of Iraq, Egypt, Greece – they seek stability in government which American politicians seem so keen to avoid. In Athens, they see a polity in America that can pay it workers and chooses not to.

How is America any longer a model for aspiring democratic peoples? “Be like us and your social security checks will stop and your museums close.” America the exemplar?

Economists see a growing national debt and a political class prepared to play games with it. Foreign capitals will embrace not more democracy but more technocracy. The European Union, an experiment in insulating decision-making from the popular passions, will feel vindicated.

The foregoing have formed much of the media hand-wringing since the US government shutdown.

There are alternative responses, however.

Reasons to feel assured

Have we become so dependent on government that the thought of its shutting down horrifies us? Why? It is an argument elements of the Republican Party are making now, but it is one with a long history in the United States.

That nation was founded not to make government the arbiter of all human affairs but to provide a framework for the expression of “unalienable rights” (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). The Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) make clear that government “shall not” restrict these rights. It is silent on rights it must guarantee (like healthcare).

The Second Amendment, for example, does not oblige government to enforce gun rights. Rather, it tells Congress it cannot take this right away.

So, in theory, the current shutdown does not violate the Constitution. Indeed, any shutdown suggests the government is less capable of abrogating the rights enshrined at America’s birth.

Not much of a consolation, I realise, for a national park keeper whose paycheque does not turn up. But then the US government was never meant to be the enormous employer and dispenser of patronage that it has become.

A swamp (Washington DC) was designated the capital to make it an unattractive venue for endless law-making.

If the inability to compromise depresses us, the capacity of American politics for competition should reassure us.

There is an ideological debate going on. If the word ideology is a problem for you, then think of the shut down as part of a war of ideas. Ideas: we have festivals about them.

The battle is not between do-gooders who want all poor people to have access to healthcare and evil-doers who want this to remain a privilege of the wealthy. Rather, and allowing for factionalism on both sides, Republicans see Obamacare as a proxy for the further, seemingly unstoppable, spread of federal power. If government can make you well where do limits on this power actually reside?

Obamacare is thus a debate over the appropriate relationship between citizen and state. In Australia we have a tendency to view the issue in technocratic terms. We argue over which party can deliver healthcare better.

In America, to the point of closing the government, the issue is rendered in ideological terms. There is, beneath the histrionics, as genuine a debate over the role of government as any liberal democracy is currently capable.

There is a greater danger to liberty in perpetual government than a stop-start one. Better a system that can be brought to a temporary halt by a battle of ideas than one which cannot.

A final thought: is compromise in politics only ever a virtue? If the Great Compromise of 1787 allowed for the passage of the Constitution, another, in 1850, kept slavery alive and made civil war all but inevitable.