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Shutting Down but Not Closing Upby James E. Miller
At the time of publication, the United States government is shut down. That does not mean the gears of the state have come to a thankful halt. Over three-quarters of Washington's global hegemony remains fully functional. Tax dollars are still being redistributed. Wars continue to be waged. The public at large is going about its day unbothered by the furlough of tens of thousands of government employees. For once, apathy has paid off. The only poor souls bemoaning the shutdown are the ones sitting at home.
The hysteria over the non-closure has hit peak levels in the royal court media. It's on the front page of every newspaper and periodical in America, and in major news outlets around the globe. Taken at face value, one gets the impression that out-of-work bureaucrats are starving like dogs in the street. But reality tends to be far from what's editorialized. One half of the chamber of thieves passed a funding bill to ensure all government workers are back-paid. The other, more judicious, half will not think twice before sending the measure to the President's desk. Like that, the painful and impoverishing hiccup in operation will become a fully-funded vacation.
In the meantime, the ticks deprived of taxpayer blood are still whining at the top of their lungs. In an interview with a Washington Post reporter, an unnamed military contractor bemoans the current furlough and displays incredible angst over his time off. He is perturbed by the constant crisis-to-crisis governing. It's all too much uncertainty for his soft, subsidized, and overworked being. In between crying through his tax-fattened lips, the anonymous complainer lets the secret out of the bag: "I thought that 'hey, government will always be here.' I mean, I'm not that naive, but you think it's pretty stable."
It's often forgotten that government is not outside all the constraints of normal industry. Public sector employees should plan for bad times like everyone else. Civil servants treat their position like Christmas Morning – a guarantee where mommy and daddy will have presents under the tree. The state provides society's most unproductive members with a venue for making a living by predation. Why worry about pleasing fickle consumers when you can just shake them down to pay your rent? Of course, it's a bit more nuanced than that. The bureaucrat in one of the many departments of trivial spending relies on tax collectors for his paycheck. Not only does he live off theft, but he is far too cowardly to perform the dirty deed of robbing his fellow man. The days go by, stuffed in a concrete monochrome building, with the hope of only climbing the ladder of officialdom. This is a comfortable living for someone whose life goal is to exist nonchalantly as a parasite.
The ongoing shutdown provides a valuable lesson for the average person outside of the state. For the everyday man, government is an abstract concept of pure force. Once in a while, it tosses him a bone to chew on. For the most part, Leviathan keeps to demanding ransom in the name of "national glory," exceptionalism, or some other trite phrase. Even the slowest of folks doesn't truly buy that their vote counts for anything. The Oppenheimer distinction between the economic means and political means is apparent to anyone who subsists through their own labor. Everyone else believes they are adding something to society for the greater good, when in fact they act as a subtraction.
A closing of government services, absent those in charge of property protection, brings little attention to those minding themselves and their business. The sufferers are, of course, the minority who find themselves unneeded for the time being. In a separate Washington Post article, the plight of the unneeded bureaucrat is center stage. For a paper that survives by printing government idolatry, the editors likely have their hands full gathering scoops on a demoralized workforce. With nearly a million freeloaders out of the job, there is bound to be some seething resentment. One of these aimless paper-pushers told the Post that his mood was pivoting from "resignation to anger." A lack of income left him and his fellow leeches feeling like "pawns" caught up by some exogenous power.
A furloughed employee of the welfare-enabling, cronyist Department of Housing and Urban Development complained that she "used to be really proud to work for the federal government." It's a humorous assertion considering her agency specializes in penning up ne'er-do-wellers in shoddy apartment complexes. How any respectable person could take pride in bribing easy voters while paying kickbacks to contractors, I have no idea.
All this fear making its way into the media is demonstrative of just how entrenched the state is within contemporary society and the difficulty of scaling it back, if even by the smallest of millimeters. Throwing a bunch of desktop laborers to the curb elicits a loud enough peep. Taking away expected benefits is a whole different story. Like a mother rodent hissing and clawing to protect its young, the feeders at the government trough will react abrasively if the flow of money is challenged. Vitriolic rhetoric, street theater, pandering to emotion, and the occasional bout of violence are all sickly creatures that come forth when the mere prospect of making a chink in the state's bulky armor is floated. With enough cacophony, the public will fold. It's a game of banging spoons – and the political class specializes in trumpeting its own necessity.
Dissent over cutting government benefits is not limited to the United States. The recent mass outrage in Greece by the youth and organized labor was caused in large part by the threat of state benefit cuts. In Quebec, students engaged in wide-scale protests over a proposition by the provincial government to raise university tuition. These actions were not some new phenomenon. The irritable cry of losing a "gimme gimme" benefit is learned in the toddler stage, and reemerges in adulthood for those conditioned to think life simply hands you resources.
The United States government is not going away anytime soon. Soon enough, even the defenders of a limited state in Congress will capitulate and reopen the empty agencies. Bureaucrats will return from vacation to resume tormenting the men and women forced to fund their lavish lifestyles. The fact that these public servants were considered "non-essential" is waived away as some semantic tomfoolery. All government positions lack essentialness for societal function. But to be explicitly labeled "non-essential" is horribly degrading and emasculating (for those bequeathed with the Y chromosome). Yet there is no fuss. The government worker, in his heart of hearts, knows he brings nothing to the table. As economist Shawn Ritenour writes,
Pretty soon, these mid-to-low-level bureaucrats get trapped. They hate their jobs, because they see that rarely does effort or ability count for anything. They find themselves out of the political loop and, hence, cut off from the best route to promotion. They are stuck. They despise their jobs, yet it is too costly for them to leave and forge their way in the private sector.
The same government workers kicked out of their day-job will go crawling back once given the green light. Being called the equivalent of worthless will be of no consideration. The paycheck is paramount to their dignity. They have my sympathy, but there would be more to share if the state didn't thrive off the fat of the rubes.
James E. Miller is editor-in-chief of the Ludwig von Mises Institute of Canada. Send him mail