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Shutting Down

October 2, 2013
There has evolved in the USA a schizophrenic parody of patriotism which asserts that it is possible (or rather necessary) to love your country while despising many if not most of the people who live in it.   The UK is developing its own variant of this loopiness.
This cognitive dissonance is exacerbated by the fact that the same sort of people regard that it is “patriotic” to refuse to make the smallest material sacrifice in the name of the common good. The fact that such a refusal offends every tradition of “patriotism” ever recorded since the dawn of human history does not bother the sort of people who are shutting down the US government this week.

This insanity represents a perversion of a Jeffersonian theory of minimal governance. The idea that “government” is always bad has deep roots in American political culture but it has rarely been interpreted in consistent ways. In Jefferson’s day, the chief item of troubling government expenditure was military and an expensive standing army was regarded as an offence to republican liberty.

In this eighteenth-century, war was the expensive thing that governments did.  The low-tax minimal statists of the eighteenth century were not afraid of governments spending too much public money on pensions schools and hospitals because no eighteenth century government spent much on such things.  The French government on the other hand spent a fortune on fortifications and a large standing army while the British government spent a fortune maintaining an impressive fleet (have you any idea how much seasoned oak it takes to create one ‘ship of the line’?).  Welfarism as we know it was simply outside the scope of most people’s political imagination and low taxes were associated with pacific foreign policy.   Military spending was about the only form of government spending that most people were worried about.

Fear of large standing armies and of armed law enforcement officers patrolling the streets provided a crucial context for the second amendment – but that’s a different argument altogether.

Nowadays, many of those shutting down the government resist any attempt to cut military spending. The military is sacred.  There are people who cannot bring themselves to object to tax payers money being used to bomb children in foreign lands but are apoplectic about the amount of money being used to educate children in their own land.

The shutdown is the work of the people who failed win their argument through the acknowledged channels of government and are therefore prepared to pull the plug on government rather than wait and win the elections needed to reopen political and legislative debate.  Of course, this has happened a number of times before, though this is the first time this century.  It is able to happen because of a register of patriotic rhetoric that sees “government” as something to restrain rather than something to use positively.  In the USA, many politicians use the word “Washington” in the same way that Eurosceptic British politicians use the word “Brussels” – as a synonym for something that must be resisted at all costs.

This kind of defiance of federal government authority was first tested in the 1830s – during the South Carolina nullification crisis. It was subsequently tested in 1860, resulting in more than 600,000 deaths.

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