Belgian Government Shutdown a Lesson for the US?

Friday, Oct. 4, 2013
by Bob Adelmann

With all the noise and rhetoric over the awful, catastrophic, world-ending US government shutdown, little has been said about the Clinton shutdown and nothing at all about the 589 days Belgium went without a national government in 2010 and 2011.

There’s no chance that the present US “shutdown” will threaten that record.

Belgium is a quirky little country with just 11 million people. Its government, when it has one, is a combination of monarchy and bi-cameral legislative branch. The lower house, called the Chamber of Parliament, has 150 seats and numerous political parties vying for them in every election.

There is a serious political divide among the people that, in 2010, virtually guaranteed an impasse and a true national government shutdown. The northern Dutch-speaking Flemish – about 60 percent of the population – are basically conservative. They want to be left alone to live their lives without government edicts and mandates. The southern French-speaking Walloons – making up the balance – are by and large socialists. They favor a large central government and think its ok for that government to regulate behaviors and lives.

The election in June of 2010 resulted in a collision of those two opposing ideologies, with the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) getting 27 seats and the Socialist Party (SP) getting 26. The remaining seats were divvied up among ten other parties. When negotiations began to cobble together a government, some knew it was going to take a while. No one knew it would take until December 2011.

King Albert II asked the previous president to act as caretaker during the negotiations, which meant only that he was to serve as referee. He accepted the position reluctantly and then asked several times to be relieved of his duties, without success.

It wasn’t until December 2011 that a Socialist Party member became the new Prime Minister.

And so how did the common folk fare? It turns out that they did just fine. Some college professors couldn’t believe their eyes. Herman Natthijs, a poli-sci professor at the Free University of Brussels said:

A government without power can’t introduce new taxes … a government without full powers can’t [pass] new measures….

The political crisis relating to the public finance saved money.

Another liberal professor, Marc De Vos at Ghent University, was in shock:

By and large, everything still works. We get paid, buses run, schools are open….

The relevance of the cohesive national state has diminished….

That’s how a liberal views a government shutdown: its “relevance” has “diminished.” Which is another way of saying that government is much less important than college professors think it is. For lovers of freedom, the shutdown in Belgium exposed that essential truth.

Another professor, Marco Martiniello of the University of Liege, was dismayed by the “lack of cohesion” that the shutdown caused. In February 2011, when the populace was actually celebrating the lack of government with parties and public demonstrations over the seemingly endless negotiations to form a new one, he wrote:

This [ongoing shutdown] will distance people from politics. This will have a negative effect on democracy and reinforce the gap between government and citizens….

I already see a growing sense of [irrelevance] amongst my students.

The common folk, if they thought about it all, were delighted. Said the owner of a chocolate shop: “For us it doesn’t make any difference. We still have a life outside of work. We can go on vacation. We have public transportation.”

A conservative in the English parliament and a frequent traveler abroad noted that

Belgium has now gone for more than a year without a government and, you know what? Life is carrying on as normal. The crops are growing, the wheels are turning in the factories, the civil servants (there are lots of these) are lingering over their coffee and speculoos biscuits [a special Belgian dainty].

A lighter than normal legislative agenda has given the country something of a boost: growth forecasts keep being upwardly revised, and the economy is expected to expand….

With no new quangos [quasi-autonomous non-government organizations] being created, no new taxes being levied, few new regulations being imposed, the economy is growing faster than the state!

It’s tempting to mentally translate the Belgian experience to America, but the differences are vast and make it much more difficult to imagine a shutdown like that taking place here. While many government services in Belgium, like transportation and mail delivery for instance, are local governments’ responsibilities, they continued onward unimpeded by the difficulties in Brussels. Many pensions were locally funded, so the checks continued to be sent out.

Not so in America. The vast failing entitlement programs are national in scope and so many are dependent upon them that even a suggestion that they might be reduced or, worse, eliminated altogether would raise such a row that politicians would be forced to recant, come to terms, and allow the state to roll on.

There are a few hard-core conservatives in the House who have drawn a line in the sand and said, essentially, we’re going to live or die on this hill. Even the New York Times gave some unexpected credit to them for having a backbone. But their numbers are too small.

House Speaker Boehner will find a way to piece together something that the Democrats (200 in number) and enough Republicans (232 in number – there are three vacancies) will support to end the shutdown. The math is quite convincing: it takes just 217 members to pass such a bill, and there are more than enough weak-kneed wafflers calling themselves Republicans to go along with it. It might cost Boehner his job as Speaker, but that’s just one of the hazards of the position.

But it’s fun to contemplate just how the federal government would operate, and how our lives would be different and freer, without all those “quangos” like the EPA, the IRS, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, the Department of Energy, the Department of Education, and so on and so on…

We can at least live the Belgian experience vicariously.

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Sources:

CNN: Belgium ends record-breaking government-free run

Time: Belgian Waffling: Who Needs Government, Anyway?

Wall Street Journal: Senate: Shutdown May Persist More Than Two Weeks, Brush Against Debt Ceiling

2010–11 Belgian government formation

2007–11 Belgian political crisis

Washington Post: 589 days with no elected government: What happened in Belgium

The Telegraph: Having no government may not be such a bad thing

Speculoos

Newsmax: GOP Aides: Boehner Won't Let Nation Default

Light from the Right: The New York Times Reluctantly Credits Conservative Hard-Liners in Obamacare Battle

Makeup of the 113th Congress

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