The Shutdown Is Upon Us

“The vast machinery of the federal government began grinding to a halt” this morning, according to the New York Times. The Smithsonian museums and national zoo are closed. Parks are shuttered. Visa and passport applicants will have their approvals delayed. Most NASA employees aren’t going to work.

These conspicuous inconveniences characterize the shutdown, as “non-essential” federal services become suspended, and hundreds of thousands of employees furloughed. For the most part, day-to-day life continues, and most of what the government does also continues, with some exceptions. In Washington DC, the city ruled most directly by the feds, some programs noticeably halt, actually making life for residents more difficult—most notably, garbage collection. The refuse piling up will surely encourage those citizens living closest to the Capitol to voice their frustration.

Whenever the political class cannot agree on its finances, they do like to take it out on normal people, targeting programs that most people like. During the 1995–6 shutdown, national parks, foreign passports, some veterans benefits and clinical medical research took a temporary hit.

Yet during any shutdown we can expect, a wide range of federal activities considered “essential” will continue apace. Indeed, 80% of federal employees keep working as normal. The indispensable portion of the national government seemingly constitutes the overwhelming majority of its activities. Before federal spending ballooned in Bush’s last year and Obama’s first to the approximate budget we see today, the federal government spent a little over $2.6 trillion a year. When Bush took office in 2001, the federal government was spending closer to $2 trillion. It’s now spending about 50% more than what it was spending at the beginning of Bush’s term. Employees are not a perfect proxy for government budgets, of course, but if the powers that be consider 80% of federal employees necessary even during a “shutdown,” that would correspond to about $2.4 trillion in yearly spending—which would mean that even when the government “shuts down,” it’s as big as it was in the late Bush years.

The core functions of federal power remain preserved. Border control, the military, the FBI, TSA, and most other enforcement agencies will go on more or less as normal, as these institutions represent the core of what government is—a monopoly on legal force, imposed through violence.

The Drug Enforcement Administration remains active, breaking down doors, arresting dealers and users, most likely even enforcing laws against marijuana in states that have legalized it. There is no constitutional, prudential, or moral reason for the federal government to involve itself in this activity at all, and yet this destructive enterprise is so “essential” to the powers that be than even the federal government’s supposed “shutdown” leaves it unaffected.

This all raises the question: Why is the government involved in “non-essential” activities in the first place? But more interesting to me is what is considered essential and what not. There are a whole slew of programs the federal government can and should halt immediately that most Americans would never miss in their daily lives—military occupation even of friendly countries and the military presence in over half the world’s nations, federal drug enforcement, deportations of peaceful immigrants, massive welfare to the biggest agricultural corporations, federal support for domestic law enforcement, national regulatory micromanagement of everything from schools to health care to small businesses. Much of this can end overnight without an inconvenience to most people, and a lot of it can be painlessly phased out over a month. The problem is, if the truly least essential programs from the point of view of public safety and the general population actually ended temporarily, the savings might themselves end the budget crisis and Americans would realize just how many federal operations are simply better off ended entirely. What is essential to the political class is so often non-essential for anyone else.

I for one would for the most part prefer that the government reopen its “non-essential” functions and close down the rest. That would be a shutdown!

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