So, let’s be clear the current government shutdown is not much of a shutdown. First, only about a quarter of the government is not operating. The parts that are still open represent the largest part of the behemoth known as the U.S. federal government: Medicare, Social Security and the military. Also, the IRS is still withholding payroll taxes, that does not seem like much of a shutdown to me. Additionally, it’s not like this will save any money in the long run. Most of the furloughed employees will be paid back wages and keep their job, even though most were not required to work, in fact most are paid more than you are to begin with.
So, this whole episode is not some libertarian/anarchist moment. There is no change to the underlying laws that govern the country, there is no reduction in the size or scope of the federal government. There is not likely any significant movement away from a belief in the correctness of a large government. If anything, this serves to generate sympathy for the displaced federal workers.
To be fair it is a real hardship to federal employees who are going without a paycheck. While they will get back pay, they are facing a true cash flow problem that can truly harm them and their family’s finances. While we may not agree with the work they do, they, in good faith, agreed to do this for a wage and it seems unfair to create such a financial hardship for them. There are better and fairer ways to disentangle the government from our lives.
Yet, still in the shadow of New Year’s resolutions, I choose to look at the silver lining in all of this. There are two hopeful takeaways that can help lay the foundation for a healthy discussion about the role of government in our lives.
First, we can look at all the things the government is not doing as a result of the shutdown and still reflect on the fact that the world keeps spinning on its axis. The sun rises and sets; people get up and go to work and take care of themselves and their families and the world continues to progress. Food gets picked from the fields and processed and makes its way into the supermarket. Industrial production continues; items are manufactured and traded both here and abroad even without the government managing every little detail. There has been no spike in food borne illness (as if this never happened with the government fully open), industrial accidents have not spiked, and planes keep flying.
All of this becomes a teaching moment for those who argue for the indispensability of government. It is not now, nor has it ever been in the interests of business to poison their customers and/or maim their employees. Workplace accident rates were dropping before Congress created OSHA in 1970 and there is no reason why holding actors accountable for their actions will not provide enough incentive at a much lower cost, so there is no real need for an intrusive federal bureaucracy. As it is the Left consistently argues that there are not enough food inspectors, plane inspectors, fill in the blank inspectors. True enough most food, planes and industrial processes do not get inspected yet are delivered safely. So, we can conclude, especially in the light of the shutdown that these programs are not really needed, except to provide jobs for federal employees and raise costs (which helps established business at the expense of new market entrants). Let us use this moment to full advantage to argue for the blessings of a free society.
The second silver lining is that the shutdown gives us an opportunity to talk about why the federal government is doing what it is doing in the first place. I mean why are local breweries shut down because there is no one to approve their labels. Why the hell is the government in the label approving business in the first place? Why is the tech sector adversely affected by the shutdown? We must pointedly ask why an organization so technically inept as the federal government is interfering in the first place? Since most of Alaska is owned by the federal government, it has come to a standstill. Why does the federal government have this kind of power in the first place? Why does the federal government maintain a monopoly on airport/airplane security and air traffic control? Why can’t we at least turn some of these things over to more state and local control?
This is the moment to ask the well intentioned on the pro-government side WHY? WHY? WHY? In asking this we will make the important point that it does not have to be this way and in fact with federal finances cracking and all the distortions imbedded into the economy and all the cronyism inherent in this mercantilist system, it should not continue in this way (it won’t continue by the way, whether or not anyone desires it). The shutdown has given us an opportunity to highlight the insanity of all of this. Let’s take this moment and use it to press for a better way. Let’s at least use this as the springboard for a healthy conversation.
Now, I am not naïve enough to believe that all of this will turn the tide. Sadly, it will likely take a crackup of the federal government to afford a real opportunity and that produces a dangerous opportunity for authoritarians to rise up. But as long as we are called to proclaim the love of God in our lives, let’s take every opportunity God puts before us to make the case and make it graciously, yet forcefully that He calls us to be peaceful and free. In the meanwhile, let’s just be thankful we don’t get all the government we pay for.
Praise Be to God