The U.S. joins failed states around the world in telling prison guards, border patrol to work for free

October 1, 2013

Speaker of the House John Boehner talks to reporters. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

One effect of the federal government shutdown, according to my surely exhausted colleagues on the beat, is that "Tens of thousands of air-traffic controllers, prison guards and border-patrol agents will be required to serve without pay."

If you're a foreign news nerd like myself, and can sometimes go long periods avoiding important U.S. political stories, let's be clear about this: the United States has the means to pay these clearly essential government employees. It's choosing not to, as part of a self-imposed political crisis, the details of which you can and should read about elsewhere in this newspaper's excellent coverage.

Sometimes a bit of distance can lend some perspective. As someone who frequently writes about countries that struggle to overcome endemic poverty, bloody sectarian conflict and devastating natural disasters just in the hopes of forming a legitimate political authority, watching the world's richest and most powerful country sabotage its own government is just breathtaking.

Of course, there are other countries that don't pay prison guards and border patrol but still tell them to show up to work. They're called failed states.

Here's another country that asks essential security officials to do their jobs without pay: Libya. Time editor Ishaan Tharoor joked that, if you're curious about what to do during a government shutdown, ask a Somali.

The Libyan political crisis that forced it into that position wasn't a partisan dispute over health care. It was a civil war that annihilated the state, itself a four-decade dictatorship that had hallowed out civil society so meticulously that Libyans were almost starting from zero.

Of course, the United States isn't a failed state; nowhere close. Its problems are a tiny microcosm of Libya's or Somalia's or those of other failed states. And that's exactly what makes this all so strange. America's little self-imposed crises are a luxury, a reminder not of any innate Libyan-style brokenness but of the spoiled sense of entitlement with which we abuse our own fabulous wealth.

"Constant-shutdown, permanent-emergency governance is so destructive that no other serious country engages in or could tolerate it," The Atlantic's James Fallows wrote on Friday. "The United States can afford it only because we are -- still -- so rich, with so much margin for waste and error."

In other countries, they pull their hair out trying to overcome problems far more severe and intractable than any the United States faces today. In America, we throw temper tantrums when things don't go exactly, precisely our way; tearing up the hundred-dollar bills that we wrongly assume are our birthrights, just to make a political point.

To be clear, this crisis is nowhere near as severe as Libya's, and not just because those American prison guards and border patrol officers can, unlike their Libyan counterparts, expect to be paid back for their time at some point in the near future. But the fact that we put ourselves – and our essential security officials – through the routine of acting like a failed state just goes to show how entitled we've become, how badly we take our privilege and wealth for granted.

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Max Fisher | September 30, 2013