We are now in week 2 of the federal government shutdown. For most of us, the shutdown has made very little difference. For a few, especially those who work for the federal government, it has been a major annoyance. But the bottom line is that for almost all of us, life just goes on. Perhaps the biggest tragedy affecting most of us (at least those that enjoy the outdoors) is that the gates to the National Parks are locked. Note that the Parks are still there-- they did not cease to exist-- but some idiot bureaucrat decided to lock the gates and exclude the American people from their own National Parks. Other national lands (like those maintained by the Bureau of Land Management, about 40% of the State of Utah) still remain unlocked (and unfenced) and fully usable.
Some blame the government shutdown on Republicans, for attempting to repeal or "defund" Obamacare without having the votes to do so. Others blame Democrats, for not negotiating on Obamacare or any of the many other Federal programs that have driven our country heavily into debt. Both sides seem to view a government shutdown as a tragedy that could and should have been prevented, and they are probably right. But there is a better lesson from all this.
A few weeks ago, I stood on the grounds at Fort McHenry, where, during the war of 1812, the flag was flown that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the words to our national anthem, the "Star-Spangled Banner". Each stanza of that poem ends by describing our country as "the land of the free, and the home of the brave". Those two traits are inseparably connected. Our republic is, and always was, founded on the idea that freedom has a price. Veterans know all too well what that price is-- they have paid it, for the rest of us, for many generations. And many of them are now feeling the brunt of this government "shutdown", in broken promises.
Today, we seem to be living in the "land of the comfortable, and the home of the afraid". Our mass media (both conservative and liberal alike) fill the airwaves with the message that we have much to be afraid of: psychopathic killers; assault weapons and handguns; overreaching gun laws; Obamacare; foreign and domestic terrorists; gang-bangers; organized crime; Wall Street (more organized crime); drug dealers; pharmaceutical companies (more drug dealers); global warming or the vaguer "climate change"; minor nations with weapons of mass destruction; financial meltdowns we seem powerless to either understand or prevent, but which require taxes and government spending to cure; and now, a contrived government shutdown that may throw 800,000 people out of work, and threatens to derail the barely recovering economy.
Well, if 800,000 people stop working, and the worst part of it is that the National Parks are locked, perhaps a lot of what these government workers are doing isn't really all that important! And should our elected congresspersons be able to hold all of us for ransom for their own pet cause by putting the national government in a "lockout", breaking faith with our servicemen and women, and our veterans? Or should we rather take this moment to revisit the entire scope and purpose of our federal government, especially where the economy is concerned?
Imagine you are marooned on an island with 19 other people, and you all start working to make the place livable. Some of you build huts for shelter, others make rope, catch fish, or find or grow vegetables; and everyone trades what they can get or make, for what they need. You have a little construction experience, and start building huts. You quickly learn that the better and faster you can build a shelter, the better off you are, because everyone needs shelter, and a good one is worth more food, or shoes, or rope, than a bad one. The same principle applies to all the other trades. Now imagine that despite your best efforts, a defective hut (built by you) falls and injures someone, and they can't work for several months. Don't you think the small community could figure out an appropriate remedy for this situation? Suppose another resident was injured in a fall, through their own foolishness. Could others pitch in and help them out for a while? Wouldn't everyone try to be more careful so as not to be a burden to others?
Now imagine that after such an accident, one of these 19 other people decides to go to work as a building, fish and food inspector, and demands 1) that he has to inspect every shelter before an occupant moves in, and 2) that you have to build him a hut (an especially nice one), while others must provide free food, and free fish, in exchange for an inspection certificate. Does this really help build shelters any faster or better? Does it really help catch more and better fish? Are the inhabitants of the island really better off, as a whole?
Or suppose another person declares that his job is to determine how much the injured people need, and how long they should get free shelter, food and fish, again provided by you? Now instead of two injured people dependent on the community, you have four, two because of temporary injury, and two of them perfectly healthy yet on a permanent dole, doing a job that isn't really needed. How long do you suppose that the inhabitants of this island would endure this proposed arrangement? But wait-- the two freeloaders just created two new good-paying government jobs, and unemployment was reduced from 20% to 10%!
The fact is, not all "jobs" are equal. Good jobs, from garbage collector to hairdresser, make other people's lives better, and people willingly and gladly pay for these services. On the other hand, political, legislative, executive, bureaucratic, and other kinds of parasites will just eat up resources and make things worse overall.
In addition, bureaucracy and freedom just don't mix-- the more the bureaucracy, the less the freedom to innovate, to improve, or just to be left alone. The first thing a bureaucrat will usually do is justify his own existence-- by finding or creating fear of a crisis, and a plausible way to prevent it by further regulation and administration. If a job can only be done by the federal government, or with taxes collected at gunpoint from the nation as a whole (and don't kid yourself, ALL taxes are collected at gunpoint) it is usually worth asking whether the job really needs doing at all. There are few problems in life that are so serious that a little governmental interference can't make them worse. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, the scariest words in the English language are "I'm from the government and I'm here to help!"
Not all government jobs are parasitic in nature. Military and veterans are one exception, though we need to make sure that they are only called into action when necessary, and not over trumped-up causes like "Remember the Maine" or "weapons of mass destruction". Air traffic controllers are necessary, as are courts, police, fire, and similar emergency functions. But the next time you hear a government bureaucrat or elected official talk to you about how many "jobs" are dependent on the government, I hope you will ask yourself, what is the quality of these jobs? Are we really better of with a little more bureaucracy, a few more taxes, and a little less freedom? Or are we still the "land of the free, and the home of the brave"?