Thursday, December 5, 2013

Reviewing the Shutdown: Losing Prudence

Politicians continue to speak of prudence in political discourse, but the recent government shutdown highlights a lack of actual prudence in present policy debates.

Classically, prudence is practical wisdom, the virtue of politics. Prudence unites the intellectual and moral virtues, the realms of ideas and actions. Prudence unites the best means to proper ends. As practical wisdom, prudence understands the limitations of action. Thus, in uniting ends to means, prudence always necessitates practicability, the best possible means for the best possible ends.

U.S. political history provides vivid definition to prudence in action. While maintaining the right to political revolution against tyranny, the Declaration of Independence cautions, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…” The implications follow neatly. The people can properly engage in political revolution responding to tyrannical government; altering a tyrannical government is a worthy goal. The caution though entails that proper means can be matched to a good end and still be imprudent. Prudence looks at the whole picture, practicability and necessity of the particular means for achieving the goal.

The recent government shutdown reinforces the Declaration’s maxim: proper means and good ends are not enough. Prudence dictates the best possible means for the best possible ends. Forgetting this important lesson, the GOP harmed its own cause and weakened the possibility of achieving the proposed end.

The GOP recommended the ending or defunding of Obamacare for good reason. At present, most evidence points to horrific effects of this law on the personal and economic lives of million of Americans. The federal government, for the first time, compels Americans to buy a specific product, violating market principles and freedom of choice.[1] Despite President Obama’s promise, thousands of Americans lost their previous insurance plans[2] and may lose their doctors.[3] Surveys suggest businesses have cut full-time jobs to avoid or allay the new costs of mandated insurance coverage.[4] This incomplete list demonstrates the wisdom of replacing Obamacare.

The GOP also had a valid means for initiating policy changes in allowing the government shutdown. A government shutdown is a unique, powerful tool for a minority party in a divided government. The risk of shutdown enables the minority to gain bargaining power with the ruling party and seek a compromise for the general good. Shutdown is a drastic measure but not always an improper one. The spending policy of the majority creates the context for shutdown. Thus, the majority has no grounds for criticizing the tool it has placed in the hands of the minority.

Nevertheless, prudence, indeed, will dictate the simple collusion of a good end and a valid means do not always make for the right action.

The GOP acted imprudently improperly assessing the practical effects of the shutdown. American history demonstrates clearly the minority party takes the greater share of the public blame for a shutdown, as the GOP did.[5] Shutdowns generate bad publicity because closed parts of the government are often most visible.[6] Lastly, the shutdown could not even end or defund Obamacare. The best possible compromise would only delay the individual mandate, as no Democrats had shown willingness to consider more.[7]

Also, the GOP did not prudently account for the timing. Americans have consistently opposed the Obamacare law, even before its implementation.[8] Just as the Congress shut down the government, Obamacare actually hit the American people for the first time. To win the American people and viably act as the people’s recognized guardian, the GOP should not have distracted from America’s first real experience with Obamacare with a meaningless shutdown. The Obamacare rollout has been nothing but pain and headaches for the providers and the American people.[9] Prudence requires foresight.

The disastrous rollout would have given the Republicans high ground for demanding positive change. Instead, the GOP myopically abetted a shutdown and sabotaged its own credibility with Americans. Americans simply grow unhappier with the whole system rather than looking to the GOP for leadership. Prudence demands the fight against Obamacare be saved for another day when the likelihood of success would be better and the backlash not so great. Attentive foresight to the practicability and timing of the move would have made this clear to the GOP.

1. NFIB, “Individual Mandate of the Healthcare Law -- an NFIB Research CribSheet,” accessed December 2, 2013,

2. Glenn Kessler, “Obama’s pledge that ‘no one will take away’ your health plan,” The Fact Checker blog at The Washington Post, October 30, 2013,

3. Seung Min Kim and Jennifer Haberkorn, “New Obamacare weapon for GOP: Doctors,” Politico, December 3, 2013,,

4. Mark Trumbull, “Businesses cut full-time workers to meet Obamacare mandate, study says,” The Christian Science Monitor, November 13, 2013,

5. Scott Clement, “Republicans are losing the shutdown blame game,” The Fix blog at The Washington Post, October 4, 2013,

6. Evan Halper and Richard Simon, “A government shutdown would affect public quickly, widely,” The Los Angeles Times, September 27, 2013,

7. Sam Stein, “House GOP's Third Shutdown Offer Would Delay Individual Mandate By One Year,” The Huffington Post, September 30, 2013,

8. “Public Approval of Health Care Law,” Real Clear Politics, last modified November 27, 2013,

9. Aaron Carroll, “Obamacare a disaster that needs fixing,” CNN, October 22, 2013,

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