Government Shutdown and State Failure

Published October 2, 2013
By J. J. Messner
Fund for Peace – Global Square Blog
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The current shutdown of the U.S. Government, regardless of one’s political views, is pretty embarrassing for the world’s largest economy and (hopefully still) apparent beacon of democracy. Beyond the embarrassing – and some would claim, shameful – debacle unfolding on Capitol Hill, there is a more fundamental question that arises on whether this is a demonstration of the failure of a state. After all, our own definition of state failure includes “the erosion of legitimate authority to make collective decisions, an inability to provide reasonable public services.”

In our most recent Failed States Index (FSI), the United States was ranked 159th, or in other words, 20th-most stable country out of 178. It is easy to see how, given the wall-to-wall coverage of the government shutdown in the world’s media, folks in the 158 other countries ranked less stable might be a bit miffed, and wonder why the U.S., with such an evidently dysfunctional government, manages to score as well as it does. (Though the individual indicator trends for the United States, shown below, do show a gradual deterioration in its scores for Factionalized Elites, Public Services, and the Economy, all indicators that are vulnerable to governmental dysfunctionality, like shutdowns and potential debt defaults.)

Click here for an explanation of the 12 indicators
Though FFP is not affiliated with the U.S. Government, and has a fairly multinational staff to boot, the fact that we are headquartered in Washington, D.C. inevitably leads to associations being made between us and the country in which we are based. There have already been a few cheeky tweets directed at us, posing the thought that surely the shutdown is evidence of state failure, and that clearly this is an instance where the U.S. – where much criticism emanates towards how other countries operate – has been caught with its pants around its collective ankles.

Although it might be easy to shrug off such suggestions as merely cheeky one-liners, they do raise a really good point that actually should be considered quite seriously: Is the shutdown of the U.S. Government evidence of state failure?

In short, no.

That’s not to say that a government shutdown is a good thing, or even a neutral thing. It is unquestionably bad. And maybe America’s score and rank in our 2014 Index will be reflective of this. While a government shutdown in many countries could be disastrous, in the U.S. it will not have a major effect (well, at least for now, assuming Congress gets its act together before too long).

The FSI only measures pressure on a state, and although measuring such pressure and thus state fragility is key, a significant component that is not directly measured is state resiliency.

The United States, though blighted with what some have described as the worst Congress in memory, is still a pretty strong country. There have been some government workers who have been (very justifiably) protesting on the steps of the Capitol; any number of pundits of all stripes have been expressing their disdain in writing or on the airwaves; and we’re all upset that the National Zoo’s Panda Cam has gone dark. But there is not violence. There is no rioting in the street. Borders are still protected, firemen are still putting out fires, and business continues somewhat as usual. That is what resiliency looks like – and not every country can claim to have it, or the same level of it.

This also raises another useful point to consider when looking at the pressures upon countries or their stability or performance. A country is more than just a government, and this is especially so when it comes to a state’s resiliency. At a societal level, countries can be strong regardless of the performance of the bums in office. Yes, a country’s government is important and is the key focal point of a country’s structure – but there is more to it than that. It’s a bit like a disaster movie where a family’s house gets washed away, burned down, or picked up in a tornado, and the dad turns to the wife and kids and says, “well, at least we have each other.” Though the central government can appear to be a complete mess, the people themselves still metaphorically “have each other.”

Regardless of their political masters, American institutions remain strong. The rule of law is non-negotiable. And we all have a high level of confidence that before too long, a solution will be found and the crisis will end without bloodshed. That is the difference between how a pressure – like a government shutdown – affects a country with a high level of resiliency or one without. And that is why, despite a government shutdown looking like it bears a lot of the hallmarks of state failure, in this case, it is not. So in terms of whether the government shutdown is emblematic of state failure, it might look like a duck and it might quack like a duck, but in the end it’s just a bunch of angry, angry geese.

For a complete analysis of the United States' performance, view our Country Data & Trends profile for United States.

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