It is a central tenet of the right-wing, generally Republican, overwhelmingly pro-TEA Party movement that wields a stranglehold on the U.S. House of Representatives that the central government is not good for much. It does not, of course, put its belief in quite those terms, but nonetheless, that is the libertarian spirit in terms certainly of the role of the central government.
This position is, of course, arguable in either direction,as are its implications. Some of these are no less then bizarre. If government should be minimized, for instance, it follows for those who believe in the minimalist philosophy that governance is best entrusted to “citizens” rather than “professional politicians,” as they argue the Founding Fathers believed. Once again, this position is arguable on historical grounds (a thorough reading of the Federalist Papers indicates the founders agreed on relatively little and changed their minds in many cases, for instance) as well perspectival grounds (the founders thought and wrote in a very different time and might or might not reach the same conclusions today they did in the 18th century). Since none of them are around, one can, however, interpret their ideas in a variety of ways without, for instance, Tom Jefferson standing up and saying, “I never said that.” The bizarre interpretation that arises from the anti-government position, however, is the notion that governance is best placed in the hands of amateurs–in this case individuals who, based on experience levels, do not understand government and, in most cases, dislike government. How people with such an attitudinal and knowledge base can be expected to produce better government than those with the experience and positive attitude (the hated professionals) has never been entirely clear to me. The sophomorism of the TEA Party caucus in the House is evidence of this anomaly.
There is, however, one area where even the most Ayn Rand-besotted libertarians agree that government plays a role, and that is in the provision of national security. Arising from this belief, the GOP right wing (currently wagging the party dog) insists that the massive cuts in government spending they insist upon must exempt defense spending to be acceptable. Their formula for reaching a satisfactory outcome is to insist that massive government expenditure cuts not include cuts to the defense budget which is, of course, the primary source of discretionary spending in the federal budget. Since they also insist that their be no revenue enhancements (particularly directed at the uber wealthy, who finance the TEA partiers and hold the rank and file in their irrational thrall), the only way this can be accomplished is by gutting non-discretionary budgets, meaning entitlement programs. One sees Ayn Rand’s curiously named “objectivist” philosophy swirling in the rhetorical fog here. If they do not get what they want, they will not play in the Congressional sandbox, and the country defaults on its debt.
The picture here is of some truculent, pouting teenagers saying that ifthey don’t get their way, they will take their ball and go home. Were it all that innocent and inconsequential, but most observers (including virtually everyone who knows anything about economics) agree that there are very real consequences for the country and its ability to operate effectively in the world. Some TEA Party leaders and supporters say they do not believe anything bad will happen, and even if it does, it is a small enough price to pay for their real objective, which effectively is dismantling FDR’s New Deal legislation of the 1930s (which, of course, is really the objective of the uber rich, for whom the TEA Partiers are the willing–and mostly ignorant–shock troops).
Since no country of the consequence of the United States has ever had the chutzpah to declare effective bankruptcy (or even to flirt as close to the precipice as the United States has already ventured), it is impossible to predict exactly how bad this will all become, but the burden of proof that nothing particularly bad will occur seems to me to fall on those who buck all the experts and say nothing bad will happen.
This is really a question that is familar in national security circles. The rationale for stout defenses in peacetime is that strength discourages adventurism by one’s opponents: that we keep military force to deter its use against us. Generally, it is impossible to demonstrate completely that things would have been dire in the absence of that preparedness, but given the dire consequences had we failed, the effort is justified.
Doesn’t this same logic extend to the current economic crisis? What happens if, on August 3, there is no extension of the debt ceiling, and the U.S. cannot pay all its bills? At a minimum, many who rely on federal checks will not get them (which in turn means they cannot buy things that help stimulate the economy), but where is America’s place in the world? Will it be harder, even impossible, to sell American bonds internationally? Will we trigger worldwide inflation that hurts everyone and for which we are clearly to blame? Will our global position of leadership not be injured? If so, isn’t that a national security setback? Maybe we need to keep up the defense budget to protect ourselves from the understandable ire of the world community toward us. Or maybe we will simply be held in global ridicule as the superpower that refused to act responsibly according to its world position and perceptions about how we are expected to act.
Does the current crisis have national security implications? You bet, and they are all negative. Can we deter the negative reactions like we did Soviet missiles? Sure we can, but that means getting off the schneid and passing a meaningful debt ceiling extension bill. All sides in this sordid experience have some blame in all this, but it seems to me (maybe not to the reader) that particular responsibility falls on the TEA Party caucus who effectively are dragging us toward the cliff. John Boehner, if he has a pair, needs to put on his big boy pants, get out his bag of switches, and inform the TEA Party “patriots,” as they love to portray themselves, to grow up and quit playing Russian roulette with American politics, including national security.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations, and national security topics. This essay first appeared at his blog What After Iraq?.