The Sequester Game

Joseph W.H. Lough

There are a lot of very smart, liberal commentators devoting considerable column inches these days to the impending sequester. While each displays a slightly different angle on the issue, I have read none whose overall argument did not boil down to something like the following: allowing the sequester to go into effect will have disastrous consequences for the Republicans in Congress, for Republicans in State government, and for voters who, in all likelihood, will reward the Democratic Party in 2014; not soon enough to avoid considerable pain and hardship in the meantime.

While this argument makes some sense to me, another more sinister scenario has occurred to me on which I thought I might invite comment. The problem I have with the “voters will punish elected Republicans” argument is that it treats the sequester as though it were a way for Congress to compel itself to do what otherwise it has proven incapable of doing through rational discussion, deliberation, and legislation: curtail its spending. I am beginning to entertain serious doubts about whether that is what the sequester really amounts to.

What if, instead, the sequester aimed to give further impetus to a long-term agenda to shift decision-making away from public institutions and processes and toward private? And what if this long-term agenda, rather than driving traditional Republican voters into the arms of Democratic candidates instead deepened their defense of and commitment to the “freedoms” offered to them by private markets and private decision-making?

In essence, this is the old supply-side argument dressed up for a new privately financed gala. Since “Washington” – Republican, Democrat, Independent, it makes no difference – does not know how to discipline its insatiable appetite for spending, “we the people” will force “their” hand by depriving “them” of the resources they need to run “their” government.

Never mind that “they” are us, that we elected “them,” and that we even asked “them” to enact and presumably pay for the legislation we are now telling “them” we did not want. Never mind all of that.

Just how old is this argument? Well, consider that it was first floated back in the 1780s by anti-Federalists who (correctly) feared that Congress would use its newfound powers to extend the reach of republican institutions over states. In other words, the argument is very old indeed. And, then as now, its principle architects and defenders come from two camps: the very wealthy, who would prefer to take their chances in a world without the commerce clause, a federal judiciary, and a Treasury Department, and the relatively poor, who are more inclined to trust power when it is in private hands than when it is in government hands.

Now, for the moment we have to try to forget that the federalists won that argument in 1787 with our current Constitution. That did not settle the argument. Far from it. Independent private wealth kept chipping away at the federalist façade. And the relatively poor off continued to believe that they would fare better in the hands of private wealth than public institutions and processes. So, in 1861 the anti-federalists tried again; and again they lost in 1865. However, even that wasn’t the end of the story. Far from it.

By 1877, a scant twelve years after the bloodiest conflict in U.S. history, anti-federalists had convinced Americans north and south that the gains to be realized through private enterprise far outweighed the costs they would have to shoulder for abandoning republican institutions and values; i.e., institutions and values rooted in res publica, “the wealth we hold in common.” It then took the (second) worst financial crisis in U.S. history to bring the sworn enemy of republicanism, the Democratic Party, to becoming its loudest and (eventually) only remaining advocate. This was because after 1945, the Republican Party leadership began its tortured migration away from republican institutions and values and towards the openly plutocratic ideology it has embraced and shamelessly advocated for the past quarter century.

Let us suppose that all of this is true. Let us suppose, in other words, that it is not simply the Republican leadership who don’t give a damn about what happened in 1787 or 1865 or 1934 or 1964. Let us suppose that the Republican leadership has almost fifty percent of the electorate and well over fifty percent of the House of Representatives behind them. Let us suppose, in other words, that, as we face sequester, there is roughly fifty percent of “the public” (whatever that means) and over fifty percent of “the government” (whatever that means) that is ideologically opposed to securing or protecting “the wealth we hold in common” and opposed as well to institutions and values committed to preserving the Republican form of government in all the states of the Union (Article IV. Section 4).

To this not insignificant number of politicians and voters, the sequester signifies a movement in the same victorious direction as we have been moving since 1980 – a movement away from tyranny and towards liberty, never mind that the framers of the U.S. Constitution stood unilaterally on the other side of this issue.

Now, the question is, who gains from this movement? It is no longer sufficient to say that private wealth gains from the sequester. In aggregate, private wealth almost certainly loses from the sequester, at least in the short run, since it will almost surely depress consumer demand and place downward pressure on both prices and production. These, in turn, will have the pro-cyclical effect of increasing unemployment and so deepening and broadening the costs to private wealth.

And, yet, in the long run, the very incapacity of public institutions to prevent this down-turn may turn the eyes of consumers toward what are likely to be the last players on the board; not “Washington” which will have proven itself entirely incompetent, but to the men and women of private industry whose actions and decisions, now unencumbered by the weight imposed by republican institutions and values, will be free to lend a “helping hand” to those willing to free themselves from the “inefficiencies” of public institutions such as public schools, a public postal service, public transportation, public highways, the regulation of interstate commerce, taxes and the like.

What I am suggesting here is no crazed dystopic conspiracy theory. To the contrary, it is the stated, public position of the Republican Party leadership, which is, of course, in truth as fiercely anti-republican as any Jacksonian scree. More importantly, although in the short run the sequester is likely to harm private wealth, in the long run it may provide just the right push that this no-longer republican nation needs for it to topple over the edge into the full-blown global plutocracy towards which it has been trending since the middle of the last century.

Voters punish the Republicans? Perhaps. But what if this is only a side-game? What if the real game aims to remove “Washington” and all that it represents entirely from the board, completely by-passing all of those terrible inefficiencies introduced in 1787? The voters are already there. They have already learned to think and speak of “the government” as something other than themselves, as something different from “the public.” Voters have also grown accustomed to denying any knowledge of or complicity in the laws their legislators enact on their behalf; as though health, education, roads, pensions, defense, safe food, air, and water, currency, courts, and laws were supposed to appear out of nowhere, for free.

But this is precisely what nearly fifty percent of voters believe. Not only, however, have voters by and large forgotten how to make an argument on behalf of public institutions and values. They have become masters at the argument in favor of private self-interest, which all of them now knows is the only sound argument for the preservation of anything public. Should taxpayers shoulder the costs of healthcare? Should they help defray the costs of public education? Should the state run universities or hospitals? Should it construct and repair waterways or highways? Should it run parks?

All of these questions beg one and only one question: can the state construct, build, or run these institutions more efficiently and cost-effectively than private enterprise? If not, then we are at a complete loss to think of any argument that might preserve the republican character of our institutions.

How very different it was for the framers of the U.S. Constitution, federalists and republicans all. For them the creation and preservation of res publica, the wealth we hold in common, was its own argument because the alternative – a nation governed by and for private self-interest – struck them as both absurd and immoral. As a measure of just how far we have descended since 1787, this very principle, which the framers considered so preposterous, is now the very cornerstone of Republican (and even some Democratic) political ideology.

Which means, of course, that we are a republic now only in name. The sequester, even the threat of sequester, means that we have divested ourselves of that most inefficient, ineffective, encumbrance of political philosophy: republican self-government. The experiment is over. The people have lost. Long live the people!