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The Naivete behind the Federal Government Shutdown

Keywords: Government Shutdown, Naïvete, Populism, Libertarianism, Resistance 

Since 1976, the United States has sustained 21 shutdowns of the Federal Government, including the 2018-19 shutdown which just ended, putting the Federal Government back in operation for at least the next three weeks. The American people’s tolerance for government shutdowns is reflected by how these events do not translate into a major campaign issue as the Congress members primarily responsible for shutdowns are not voted out of office for their support of the action. Insofar as government shutdowns reveal both a wish and a myth in the American political psyche, many wish for a time when the reach and power of the Federal Government was not so pervasive and powerful.

The resistance to government is, in part, rooted in a peculiarly American form of Christianity with roots in the original Thirteen English Colonies. In his Warfare State, historian James T. Sparrow wrote how the United States developed a Christian religious tradition rooted in evangelical and dissenting (to the established colonial Anglican and Congregationalists) churches who actively resisted government authority. This resistance, about which historian William McLoughlin often wrote, became a predominant part of American culture with the Second Great Awakening (1800-1830). This religious revival, begun at Yale University to defend its Calvinist foundation against French Enlightenment thought, rapidly evolved into something very different on the American frontier west of the Appalachian Mountains. There, people confident in their own intellectual and physical abilities did not see themselves needing East Coast institutions or their established churches with their educated clergy. Rather, people on the frontier privileged their individual, subjective, and experiential understandings of the Protestant faith tradition and interpretations of Scripture over any such authority. They relied on themselves for a populism that voluntarily formed communities and shaped their religious practices. This American populism was decisive in bringing about the election of Andrew Jackson in 1828. Since that time, many Americans on the conservative and libertarian right, and to a far lesser degree on the anarchist left, imagined a golden age of the United States where human enterprise was free because the Federal Government’s role was limited. Today’s populists believe that if that government is shrunk to the point that, as tax-concerned political activist Grover Norquist put it, citizens could drown what remained in the bathtub, we could return to that golden age where the people rule themselves and solve problems locally without government experts interfering in matters of local governance.

This anti-government attitude is dangerously naïve on two counts. First, it is based on the assumption that extensive government regulation and the reach of its power is an exclusively modern phenomenon. Second, it assumes that the size of government always grows at the expense of individual human freedom. Colonial New England governments regulated a great deal, from religiously motivated laws forbidding economic and leisure activities on Sunday, to regulating the height of picket fences on one’s front yard. With independence, the Federal Government has always played a major role in encouraging commerce and in bringing order to lands west of the Appalachians. With 19th century westward expansion, Thomas Jefferson sponsored the Lewis and Clark Expedition to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Purchase and Abraham Lincoln signed the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Act in 1862, as incentives by the Federal Government to settle those lands and establish institutions, which quickly developed into new states of the Union. The Morrill Act confirmed the national need for an educated citizenry. Private businesses profited from Federal Government contracts to build government and military infrastructure and early generations of engineers received their training at United States military academies. These initiatives were (are) anything but restrictions on individual freedoms.

Beginning with the Civil War, big government is the consequence of the growth of the United States as a continental nation, an urban society, and an industrial economy. In the twentieth century, the Federal Government has had to respond to urban poverty, labor exploitation, business monopolies and corruption, and local government corruption generated by the Industrial Revolution. The Progressive Age gave us the earliest regulations to guarantee food and drug safety, the arbitration of labor disputes, the regulation of workplace hours, safety, and child labor, and the abolition of anti-competitive business monopolies to protect free markets. (Curiously, the protection of free markets, ironically, is something anti-government advocates value.) The national crises of World War One, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Cold War, and the fight for Civil Rights, followed in rapid succession. No decentralized, small national government, no local government, and no religious or secular voluntary social organization could have marshaled the political power and economic resources to adequately grapple with these crises and defeat autocracy, Fascism, Communism, and (overt) race-based discrimination. Historically, the Christian worldview encourages political engagement, support of, and participation in governance to advance a more humane society. While the founders of the colonies and leaders of an independent nation may not recognize these United States, a populist small government belongs to an epoch in history to which we cannot return.

A free citizenry needs a sophisticated governing structure to help negotiate modern, complex individual and social lives and to correct the political and social injustices that local and state governments and civic organizations were and are still unable or unwilling to address. The Christian tradition (perhaps especially the Roman Catholic) does not have an intrinsic bias for small government but to all the government we need, with powers exercised at appropriate levels for the common good. To think we can order our lives with anything less is folly.