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The libertarian case for the shutdown, explained

Some shutdown sympathizers have argued it’s a good moment for evangelizing small government.

A wall runs along the U.S.-Mexico border on January 24, 2019 near Campo, California.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

America’s longest-lasting government shutdown is a loser in the polls among most Americans, but among a swath of prominent conservatives and libertarians, it’s no big deal. In fact, it might even be a good thing.

“Looking around America, everything seems pretty normal. Life goes on,” said John Stossel, a popular libertarian commentator, in a video for Reason Magazine. On January 15, he said, “Kids still play and learn, adults still work, stock prices have actually increased during the shutdown. It’s hardly the end of the world.”

A week later, Stossel told me that the partial shutdown is a problem, but not nearly as bad as it’s been portrayed in the media.

Conservatives concede the shutdown does affect some people, but many don’t have much sympathy for them. As Claremont Institute’s Raheem Kassam wrote in response to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s case against the shutdown: “What were their points? Government workers are suffering? That’s a tough sell to most Americans, who don’t have half the luxuries or benefits of federal employees.”

Meanwhile, in an interview on CNBC that went viral Thursday, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross seemed unaware of why furloughed federal workers were lining up at food pantries when they could simply take out a loan. “The obligations that they would undertake, say, borrowing from a bank or a credit union,” he said, “are in effect federally guaranteed, so the 30 days of pay that some people will be out is no real reason why they shouldn’t be able to get a loan against it.” (Many federal workers reacted that doing so would only lead to more debt.)

And other activists are almost gleeful about workers missing paychecks.

Conservatives with a libertarian bent largely believe that not only should government collect fewer taxes, but the federal government should do a lot less overall, and that a big government can only serve to limit individual freedoms. In their view, government should be reserved for matters of security, leaving the rest up to private citizens and businesses. As Commentary Magazine writer Noah Rothman told me, “The larger the government and its obligations, the more moral hazards it produces.”

But for some conservatives, this argument has blurred into a long-held resentment of federal workers, whom they see as the recipients of unjust government largess. And as the shutdown begins grounding planes and causing real material harms to more Americans nationwide, it’s a harder argument to make — and will make it tougher to make in the future.

Shutdown sympathizers

At the conservative outlet the Daily Caller, a writer purporting to be a senior official within the Trump administration working without pay wrote that the shutdown could be an opportunity to dramatically cut down the size of the government:

Most Americans will not miss non-essential government functions. A referendum to end government plunder must happen. Wasteful government agencies are fighting for relevance but they will lose. Now is the time to deliver historic change by cutting them down forever.

And Candace Owens, a right-leaning activist and director of communications for the conservative advocacy organization Turning Point, seemed to agree, saying that “literally not a single element of our daily lives” have been affected by the shutdown, making her wonder “what the hell exactly our government does when it’s open.”

And their views on federal workers furloughed by the shutdown have been no kinder. In December, when the shutdown began, the conservative blog Zero Hedge said federal workers were simply “whining.”

“The truth is that thousands of federal workers are currently experiencing a paid vacation over the holidays, and ultimately their annual pay won’t be a penny lower than it otherwise would have been,” Michael Snyder wrote in a piece republished by Zero Hedge.

First and foremost, this simply isn’t true for many workers who live paycheck to paycheck, or for federal contractors, which can include janitors and cafeteria workers, who won’t get any back pay at all.

The notion that government employees receive “luxuries” is in part based on research that’s shown that the rise in salaries for government employees has exceeded that for private employees over the past 80 years, and those jobs often include pensions, union membership, and vacation time.

As the New York Times reported earlier this month:

Since 2000, average pay has grown twice as fast for federal employees as it has in the private sector. That’s partly because the federal work force has become more educated and specialized. It is also built into the job. Even without the salaries that top performers can command in the corporate world, government workers who do well are entitled by law to regular pay increases, an increasingly rare guarantee elsewhere.

Then there’s President Donald Trump’s argument: that most of the federal workforce missing paychecks are Democrats, an idea that resonates with skeptics of federal jobs.

In 2010, Gallup found that 40 percent of unionized federal employees identified as Democrats, with 27 percent identifying as Republicans. Of those who were not members of a union, 33 percent were Republicans and 29 percent were Democrats. And more Democrats receive campaign contributions from federal employees than Republicans, though that doesn’t tell us whom those federal employees would vote for every time.

But the combination of a federal workforce that’s generally better paid than the private sector and more likely to contribute to Democrats has contributed to a perceptible lack of sympathy from some on the right, many of whom bear a long-running anti-government animus.

“This was a chance for us to do what needed to be done in the absence of government”

For libertarians focused on the question of government size and scope, some are looking at the shutdown as a test case to show that there are many tasks the federal government does that could be performed just as well — or better — without government.

Some Libertarian Party groups are putting that argument into action, volunteering to clean up national parks while park employees are furloughed — in the words of the Libertarian Party of Kings County, “stepping in to do the job the government can’t.”

Kalish Morrow is the chair of the Libertarian Party of Kings County, California. On January 13, Morrow and about 15 other Libertarian Party members took part in a clean-up effort in Yosemite National Park. In an email, Morrow said that doing so was a chance for libertarians to practice what they preach.

“This was a chance for us to do what needed to be done in the absence of government,” she said. “We were told by the local businesses in Yosemite that business was better than ever between the volunteers cleaning and the amount of people taking advantage of free access to the park.”

Morrow conceded that maintaining the parks involves more than just trash clean-up, but she was confident they could function without government. “I admit I do not know much of the behind the scenes, such as research and environmental protection, that the parks perform, but as we’ve learned from other privately run parks it is possible for a private organization to run these services more efficiently and effectively than government can when given the chance.”

The National Park System encompasses 85 million acres of land nationwide and in American protectorates, and employs 20,000 permanent, temporary, and seasonal employees. Volunteers can only do so much to keep basic functions of national parks going — not to mention incidents of poaching and permanent damage caused by visitors driving in areas where they’d normally be kept away.

The libertarian case against the shutdown

But while libertarians like Stossel and others might support the messaging opportunity the partial government shutdown provides, they’re not thrilled about the shutdown itself. As Rothman argued in a piece earlier this week on how the shutdown wasn’t a win for small government, “The conservative case that government is too big and too unwieldy is buttressed by ample evidence. If the results of conservatives’ policy preference look less like efficiency and more like disorder, though, they will win few converts to the cause.”

Matt Welch, editor at large of Reason Magazine, told me, “I get that there’s some marginal value in a demonstration project that people might not need government as much as they [think],” but, he added, “The fact is the actual shutdown won’t save one penny, and pushes us further away from, not closer toward, cutting the size and scope of government.”

“Why? Because nobody’s talking about that now, and they’re even less likely to talk about it after Leviathan reopens.”

He raised the example of the 2013 government shutdown that centered on funding for the Affordable Care Act. “Shutdowns start out as unpopular then get more so; by the end of that one, Paul Ryan, and later, Mitch McConnell declared that there’d be no more brinksmanship on debt ceiling raises (which, unlike shutdowns, are moderately popular), thus reducing one of the last effective bits of leverage Republicans had under Obama.”

Welch concluded that the best-case scenario is that perhaps Americans would recognize that agencies like the TSA shouldn’t be run by the federal government. “But the worst case is that that lesson doesn’t stick, the resulting bipartisan deals will just grow government more, and meanwhile, it will become marginally harder to get the maximum government-personnel bang for the buck.”