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The price of liberty

  • Published at 05:46 pm January 25th, 2019
US President Donald TrumpReuters

The shutdown of the American government illustrates the importance of checks and balances

There is tremendous discomfort to the public that uses certain federal government services like national parks and airport security, while it is heartbreaking to see so many families going without, at least temporarily, paychecks that they counted on as federal government workers and contractors. 

That is the first narrative that comes to the forefront in any discussion of the partial shutdown of the federal government in the US. As someone who has had to travel quite a bit recently, trust me, I have experienced the lines and the frustration of both the passengers and the government security (TSA) agents with the situation.

But the partial shutdown also highlights something that is rarely mentioned in the prevailing narrative, taken for granted by most Americans, and utterly ignored by much of the broader world outside: The triumph of the constitutional system of checks and balances in the United States of America. 

Despite gnashing his teeth and bellowing on Twitter every hour, President Trump has no power to order the reopening of the closed parts of his government because the Constitution of the United States is crystal clear that only Congress gets to appropriate money for government operations and when that set appropriation runs out for some parts of government -- as has happened in this case -- the operations cease for lack of money. 

Any effort by President Trump to “order” a reopening without the money will be swiftly laughed out of court by the independent judiciary of the US. 

Can you imagine something like this in Bangladesh where in reality the entire legislative, executive, and judicial reins reside in one place? 

Don’t get me wrong. Every instinct that President Trump has exhibited regarding the use of power tells me that if he could, he would do what he thinks is best in his view, notwithstanding the opinions of others. 

What constrains him from putting his hubris to work is not his magnanimity or respect for the perspectives of others; rather. it is the often agonizing maze of the multiple strands of the separation of powers concept baked into the American constitutional system than stymies would-be authoritarians from running the republic like a fiefdom.

Efficiency is a prized attribute in the delivery of goods or services, whether in the private or public sector. For most part, that is. In the public sector, the price of Swiss-clock like efficiency can’t be overemphasized. 

Let us not forget that Mussolini made trains run on time and that there is very little violent crime in Saudi Arabia or that the roads of North Korea’s capital Pyongyang are spotless and shiny. 

Most commonsensical people -- or, at least, those who prize their liberty -- are unlikely to line up to migrate permanently to those destinations of brutally efficient governments. 

Governments that are too efficient at good things can be very efficient at evil things too; this is not because efficiency in itself breeds evil but because the nature of the human beast is such that in the absence of institutional constraints, the hard-wired lust to maximize power over others comes to surface.

Those constraints can be personal in the sense of morality, social in the sense of traditions, or institutional in the sense of checks and balances embedded in organic law and enforced by the combination of independent branches of government, competitive elections, and a free press. 

Only the last of those constraints -- institutional checks and balances -- seems to work in the modern world made up of nation-state actors.

I cannot predict when the partial shutdown of the American government will end. 

If anything, I am convinced that, before it ends many more people will be subject to further aggravation, straitened circumstances, immense suffering, and immeasurable inconvenience. 

Yet, I suspect many of those very people will be thanking their stars, upon reflection, that they live in a country where the president -- whether it be Trump or someone who comes after him -- cannot rule by decree even when the temptation is great and public clamour very audible. 

It has often been said that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. 

A less poetic, everyday corollary to that gem of wisdom is this: The more efficient a government, the less free the citizenry. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and lecturer of social sciences. He writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]

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