Self-destructive government behavior here and abroad

I went back to Istanbul last month. When I was there in June, major demonstrations garnering worldwide attention were ablaze.

Those demonstrations focused on Gezi Park right off the huge and centrally located Taksim Square where masses of people protested when the government announced plans to begin demolition of the park for new construction. In June, a corner of the park had already been torn up, and heavy construction equipment was on-site, clearly ready to tear up the rest of the park. But that work stopped when these demonstrations filled Taksim Square, and Gezi Park became a guarded fortress cordoned off by police who massed there with their water-cannon trucks and tear gas ready to disperse the demonstrators.

Now I found this beautiful park, with graceful trees and large play areas for children, not only fully accessible but also with the corner torn up by construction equipment restored to a grassy slope covered with elegant plantings.

While the park’s planned destruction was the spark that ignited those demonstrations, the underlying causes were much more fundamental, relating to governmental attempts to restrict personal freedoms and make intrusions into personal and family decision-making. Recent news reports indicate these more fundamental issues are far from being resolved. Moreover, the consequences of the police attacks are still being felt as many reportedly continue to suffer from the lingering effects of those attacks.

The purpose of both of my visits — under the auspices of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies — was to discuss with academics from universities across the Middle East how methods of clinical education used in law schools in the United States could also work for them. This is not to say that these universities’ law faculties are without clinical programs of their own. They have good ones in areas like protecting women’s and children’s rights, addressing domestic violence and combating human trafficking. But they are looking to hear about best methods from U.S. law school clinical practice and also about ways of adding new types of clinics, including potentially ones in my field of furthering economic development in distressed communities.

Some of my colleagues at the conference asked what I thought would happen regarding U.S. government default. I said I thought these default threats had a self-destructive quality akin to what the Turkish government has provoked among its people by trying to curtail their freedoms — with consequences that are persisting and affect everything from the tourist trade on which Istanbul so heavily relies to the very stability of the nation itself. That being said, I told them I thought that the United States was not likely to default.

My reasoning was based on the fact that U.S. politics is being driven more and more by large campaign contributors, especially since the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United. In fact, our society is getting increasingly segmented between the very wealthy and the rest of us. The growth in wealth in the last 30 years has been nowhere more rapid than in the financial sector. Those in the financial sector may be ambivalent about a government shutdown but definitely not about a default. Phone calls from wealthy contributors, especially in the financial sector, I’m sure let congressmen know the contribution cutoffs they would have faced if they had let default actually happen.

The calls surely came because the repercussions of default on all of us, but especially on the financial sector, would be enormous and affect everything from triggering private defaults on agreements secured by downgraded U.S. securities to the potential compromise of the U.S. dollar itself as the world’s reserve currency.

As to the latter, right now owning Chinese currency and its equivalent in government bonds, for example — when the Chinese government could arbitrarily decide on devaluation, or the country could be ravaged by upheavals based on its own enormous income and wealth inequalities (as Chinese leaders greatly fear) — is not the safest bet. However, a U.S. default changes that equation. The value of a currency is based on trust in its issuer, and if that trust is compromised by default, all bets are off. Given our national debt, we can’t afford not to continue as the world’s reserve currency of choice where people want to place their investments for safety and certainty.

Compromising that position really gravely wounds us, both short-term and long-term and in both private and public dealings, and that kind of self-destructive governmental behavior works no better here than it does in Turkey.

Mr. Hudspeth lives on Glen Hill Road.