The New York Times considers the implications of a government "shutdown" that looks increasingly likely this week. As the Times explains, the government does not actually shut down during a shutdown; only its "nonessential" functions do. The question that immediately springs to the libertarian mind is why government, which is a kind of force that is ultimately backed by the threat of violence, should be used to accomplish nonessential goals in the first place. That does not mean we should let the government go unfunded forever (although the thought is tempting). After a few weeks, for instance, the federal courts will run out of the civil filing fees that keep them going when their usual funding is cut off, and they are a branch of government that is essential, constitutional, and morally legitimate (assuming that government itself is). And while I have already received my income tax refund (thanks, Commissioner Shulman!), that does not mean I relish the thought that other Americans won't get theirs until after the budget impasse is resolved (although they really should have planned ahead and filed earlier). Furthermore, some of the functions the government deems vital enough to keep going during a shutdown (e.g., intercepting politically incorrect intoxicants) are neither essential nor morally legitimate. But as a first approximation, the prioritization demanded when the flow of funds slows to a trickle helps distinguish between the federal government's "core constitutional roles" and everything else.
The saddest scenario envisioned by the Times involves a Cincinnati woman who is driving to Washington, D.C., on Friday with her family and plans to visit the Smithsonian Institution. When she gets there, the Times gravely informs us, she may be greeted by paper signs that say "Closed Due to Government Shutdown." Tragic as that would be, I have to ask why the hell the government needs to run a set of museums that paying customers are so eager to visit. Ditto the National Zoo and the national parks, which also will close temporarily in the event of a shutdown. If people really value such facilities, they would be willing to pay for private versions of them, whether as customers or as patrons. If they don't, how can it be right to forcibly take their money and use it for these decidedly nonessential purposes?