Government Shutdown

If You Still Think the Shutdown Proves Government Is Important, You're Seeing What You Want to See

A lot of what government does is better done by somebody else-or not at all.


Olivier Douliery/SIPA/Newscom

The theatrical federal government semi-shutdown is now over, or at least on hiatus, while the dominant political tribes in D.C. take a break from posturing to pay a few bills. And, I admit, I'm honestly sad to see the end of an inconvenience to government workers. Even as media pundits lamented the plight of federal employees waiting on delayed paychecks, it became increasingly obvious that many of their tasks are unnecessary, better performed by the private sector, or downright dangerous.

Illustrating the theatrical and unnecessary nature of much of the shutdown was a story in my local paper about National Park Service rangers fining "trespassers" at sites including the Montezuma Well Indian ruins. The sites were closed because 22 employees were furloughed and "volunteers also can't return to work" (because reasons, I suppose). But Montezuma Well is free to enter and the small ranger station there is often unstaffed. The four officers still patrolling may well be the most official activity the place has seen.

Unlike patrolling locations that are frequently unguarded, air traffic control is a job that needs to be done. So it was troubling when the Federal Aviation Administration announced that unpaid federally employed controllers were calling in sick, creating delays at airports. But why are we dependent on the government for air traffic control?

After all, an important recent report from the U.S. Department of Transportation's own Inspector General pointed out that Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France "commercialized their air traffic operations via independent air navigation service providers" that "are financially self-supporting." The report added that the United States could learn from their experience.

The various foreign approaches studied in the report range from government-owned corporations to for-profit partnerships. All the operations are funded independent of government taxes and appropriations, meaning that they can continue functioning through the overseas equivalents of the Trump-Pelosi show.

Unsurprisingly, the airline trade association, Airlines for America, supports privatization. Industry analysts say their cause got a big boost from the shutdown.

Of less concern, air travel-wise, was the growing absentee rate among TSA workers as their paychecks failed to materialize. Sure, it sucks to work for delayed compensation. But nobody conscripted them into government service—they took those jobs of their own accord. And they're very, very bad at what they do.

"Undercover investigators were able to smuggle mock explosives or banned weapons through checkpoints in 95 percent of trials," ABC News reported in 2015.

Of travel safety, security expert Bruce Schneier says "the two things that have made flying safer since 9/11 are reinforcing the cockpit doors and persuading passengers that they need to fight back. Everything beyond that isn't worth it."

"The relationship between the public and the TSA has become too poisonous to be sustained," admits the agency's former administrator, Kip Hawley.

TSA workers do excel, though, at abusing opportunities to rob, grope, and harass travelers.

Harassment, of course, is a core responsibility for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF). Like too many law enforcement agencies, they largely exist to stop people from doing what they have every right to do—in their cases, to interfere with people's right to self-medicate and to possess the means for self-defense.

Also like too many law enforcement agencies, these two federal bureaucracies have an unpleasant record of misbehavior. The ATF is frequently guilty of "rogue tactics," as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel put it, and has lost many of its own firearms while trying to regulate those belonging to the public. The DEA has a history of brutality, partying with criminals, and occasionally trafficking in contraband itself.

I find it equally difficult to feel sorrow over the FBI's complaints about shutdown-induced difficulty in paying snitches and buying drugs in stings (no word yet on how the cash crunch affected the bureau's domestic surveillance operations or its campaign against private encryption). Given the bureau's checkered and politicized record, anything that slows it down should provide plenty of Americans with a feeling of relief.

Speaking of a cash crunch, is anybody really sorry that IRS employees suffered some financial discomfort from the sort-of government shutdown? That is, I'll point out, the type of experience they specialize in inflicting on others. Besides, it may not be such a bad thing if the nation's tax collectors fell a bit behind in their role as political weapons wielded by the powerful against their enemies.

Commenting on soldiers who enlist to fight in imperialist wars, the philosopher Herbert Spencer once remarked, "When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don't care if they are shot themselves."

By comparison, it doesn't seem excessive to me to refuse to shed tears over temporary financial inconveniences for government workers whose jobs, in all too many cases, pose threats to life, liberty, and property.

No, the experience of working while waiting on a delayed paycheck isn't pleasant for anybody. But the private sector is also hiring, and it's perfectly capable of taking over many of the actually necessary jobs that government does. Given the nasty, intrusive, and abusive nature of so much of the rest of what occupies the government's time, we should be happy to see it go unfunded.

Many of the tasks done by government, it turns out, are better done by somebody else. And many of the rest are best not done at all.