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October 4, 2013

The present United States government “shutdown” presents two points of interest to observers.  The first, and most obvious, is that it is not really a shutdown at all, in the sense that government has ceased to operate.  In fact, the United States government continues to function relatively normally, albeit at reduced staffing levels, even though the legal authorization for many of its activities has expired.  The situation serves as a very clear demonstration of what actually constitutes government in a nation-state.  The titular governing body in this case, the United States Congress, has been unable to meet its own requirements for continued operation of the national government – and yet the process of governing goes on in spite of its irresolution.  The rulers have decided to stop ruling – and yet the process of ruling goes on without them.  It is a striking illustration of how authority becomes separated from the individual in a nation-state.  It should also serve as a warning to those individuals who, while living within the sphere of influence of a nation-state, believe that they can effect change in the state by replacing its nominal rulers.

The second, and more interesting point, has to do with the details of how the shutdown has been implemented.  Few agencies have ceased operations entirely; the majority have merely reduced their personnel levels temporarily in accordance with a prearranged plan.  Only personnel considered “essential” to keeping the government functioning are currently at work.  Because the shutdown was conducted in this way, the United States is currently providing some indications as to which of its functions a nation-state deems essential, since the determination as to which personnel are essential and which are not was made by the state itself, via its departments.  The overall picture presented by the reductions in staffing is summarized in this chart:

Furlough graphWhat conclusions may be drawn from this data?  It appears that there are only two functions considered absolutely essential by the nation-state.  One is maintaining its equal status among its fellow states (notice that the State Department is the only department not subject to a personnel reduction).  The other is maintaining its monopoly on the use of force and the support structures for that monopoly (Veterans Affairs, Homeland Security, Justice, Defense).  Outside those two categories, there is the Department of Transportation, which has only had its personnel levels reduced by a third – perhaps because a breakdown in the transportation system would be sure to be noticed immediately and might cause widespread panic or resentment among the population.  Every other cabinet-level department has seen its staff reduced by more than fifty percent, with a corresponding curtailment of its activities.  Eight out of those seventeen departments have seen staff cuts of eighty percent or more, including Treasury, Commerce, Agriculture and Labor.  Even the collection of taxes has been given a low priority, while the Department of Education has been nearly closed and the national libraries and archives completely closed.

In short, only those departments which enable the state to maintain the illusion of its rule continue to operate at full or nearly full capacity.  Those which are intended to provide benefits to the population as a whole do not.  And the more abstract the benefit, the less necessary the state considers it.  Knowledge is not valued by the state, but the ability to reassure its soldiers and defenders of their importance is.  Ensuring the quality of food supplies available to the population is not considered worthwhile enough for the state to expend limited resources on, but the ability to imprison members of that population if they are perceived to transgress its laws is.

The state exists partly by accident and partly to serve itself.  It has no other purpose.

Government became popular because it provided man with conveniences.  If it can no longer do so, what good is it?


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