Current Events

On shutting down

Agent A makes a contract with agent B, agreeing to pay B $X. A overspends and has difficulty paying B. A decides not to pay B. In many cases, we would say this is unacceptable and that A must pay B what is owed. At least, we think, A must go through the proper channels to declare bankruptcy if A is to not pay B what A owes B. This would be unfortunate, we are told, but bankruptcy law is needed to allow for the proper running of the economy.

Today, the U.S. government is agent A. Many libertarians seem happy with the idea of a government shut down. The government, I imagine some think, is not an ordinary agent–it is a big evil entity that had no right to make the contracts at issue and could only afford to pay what it is thought to owe B because it planned to steal the money to do so from the rest of us innocent individuals who it aggresses against. I think as much of this as I do the idea that all taxation is theft. If we are to have a government, we must have taxation in some form. Anarchists could consistently hold that all taxation is theft. For my part, though I am very sympathetic to anarchism–and sometimes find myself almost embracing it–I think there is a role for government: harm prevention and rectification. That costs money; in my view, taxation to pay for that is acceptable. But this is at least partly beside the point.

Our government does not confine itself to harm prevention and rectification. It engages in many activities no libertarian of any stripe would endorse or think permissible. So, I agree that our government taxes us wrongly. Yet I am not gleeful at the prospect of a government shut down. Perhaps you think I should be. After all, police, military, prisons, and courts will all continue to operate–the shutdown is partial, not complete–and that, some will say, means the government will, under the “shutdown,” do the things I want it to do and less of what I don’t want it to do.

But there’s the first point: its not true that the government will “do the things I want it to do and less of what I don’t want it to do.” So-called “essential” services will remain and so-called “non-essential” services will not. NASA will (mostly) be shut down, OK. But our soldiers will stay in all of the places they find themselves, regardless of whether their presence there is a matter of harm prevention or not (and police will continue to arrest people for smoking marijuana; the DEA, I think, will also remain active). The NSA will continue to record or monitor our phone calls, emails, etc. Judges will continue to hear cases about which there should be no laws. Import tariffs will still be collected. I’ll leave it to others to go make a longer list, noting merely that I do not trust that the essential/non-essential distinction will be used appropriately. And lets be honest: our so-called “representatives” in Congress know the score. They know how the essential/non-essential distinction will be used. That means that even if the programs they want cut are exactly the programs that should be cut, they are only engaging in political showmanship. And it has costs. And that takes us to the second point.

People who were promised paychecks will not get them. Some will get them late. Some will get smaller paychecks (due to furlough time). Some of these people will face tremendous difficulty. I think it fair to say they will be harmed–having planned their lives given the promise of a regular paycheck, they have legitimate expectations that are being set back. Perhaps the government should not have hired those people in the first place (after all, they are “non-essential” personnel!). But the fact is they were hired and treating them this way is wrong and makes a mockery of contract.

Put the point this way: a mobster might be wrong to extract protection money from a business, but that does not make it any less wrong for the mobster to fail to protect that business in time of need. We don’t say “wait, the mobster doesn’t have to live up to its agreement because it was wrong to make the agreement in the first place.” I think most of us think 2 things: (a) the mobster should not have extracted the protection money in the first place and (b) the mobster owes the business protection. Similarly, I think the government should not have hired people to do non-essential jobs (by which I mean any jobs not needed for harm prevention and rectification) in the first place but that because it did, the government* owes those people their salaries on the regular pay days. This does not mean we should not seek to limit government or that we are stuck forever with all of the “non-essential” personnel. It means we must work to have the government limited in scope, but limited through moral means. This may be harder, but its not impossible. (I’d start with a simple rule: No replacement hires of any personnel who do not do any work needed for harm prevention or rectification unless failure to fill the position in question would result in a direct harm to another. I realize that needs unpacking.)

I’ll add one final point. At least some of us here at (maybe all of us) believe that the government “is significantly responsible for causing and perpetuating poverty” (I borrow that way of putting it) and that if this is the case, it would be wrong to suddenly and immediately cut programs aimed at alleviating that poverty–at least before cutting elsewhere. This is really the same point as the one made in the last paragraph: it was wrong for the government* to undertake programs that lead anyone into poverty, but since it did, it has obligations to those so lead. This does not mean we are stuck forever with helping those people (as a matter of rectification). It means that if we want limited government, we must work to have the government limited in scope through moral means.

*NOTE, meant to prevent a certain sort of objection: The government is a corporate entity. It was people in the government that acted in ways that lead other people in the government to have legitimate expectations regarding paychecks (and that lead to the policies that lead to poverty). To some extent, perhaps, we are all complicit in this. I won’t defend that claim here.

Published on:
Author: Andrew Cohen
  • adrianratnapala

    Not being American, I won’t argue about this particular shutdown, but warn about any general philosophical argument against it. Suppose the Foozbanian government spends money on the credit of future generations. Quirks of the financial system cause investors to nominate Foozabian bonds as risk-free.

    Now (here comes the hypothetical) suppose this goes on beyond any reasonable bounds – current Foozbanian policy will certainly bankrupt the nation; but only after the ruling politicians and managers of the lending institutions have retired with the spoils of spending.

    Suppose those parts of the Foozbanian polity who don’t like this policy are in a position to choke off the borrowing, though they have little control over the details of spending. Is AC saying there is no circumstance, ever, when they should use that ability? That it is *always* better to wait for the bond-buyers to change their minds?

    • ThaomasH

      To begin with, the shutdown is not about borrowing, it is about, depending on the day and hour, about funding ACA, taxing medical devices or the timing of when the individual mandate kicks in.

      And of course whether ” current Foozbanian policy will certainly bankrupt the nation;” (what ever that is interpreted as meaning) is in dispute.

  • Ian

    I found this a fairly poor article.

    One example is: “a mobster might be wrong to extract protection money from a business,
    but that does not make it any less wrong for the mobster to fail to
    protect that business in time of need.”

    The government is not failing to protect anyone, even by your own admission in the preceeding paragraphs. The police and military are still there, for better and worse. So the government is not failing to protect.

    What has happened is that the government cannot decide how to allocate its resources. This would be like the mob having an argument about divvying up the loot but it is still going to act to protect its territory to ensure future profits.

    Also, a contract with government employment likely stipulates that these events can and do happen and therefore government employment is only contingent upon proper funding.

    I think Mr. Cohen should find better arguments. The claim about the poor not getting aid is much stronger–but again, the largest welfare programs are still going strong.

    • good_in_theory

      Andrew was talking about the government’s obligation to pay its employees, not to provide protection, in the analogy with mobsters. So it’s not like the mob continuing to protect its territory. It’s like the mob getting its drug shipment busted and having no cash and still being obligated to pay the ordinary joe bartender at their legit cover business.

      • Ian

        I disagree with this analogy because government employees aren’t working in a legit “cover business” while the “real” business happens elsewhere. They are all part of the same organization and when you join this organization you explicitly understand that your livelihood depends on how well the organization gets its funds. The fight is about how these funds are apportioned.

        This is really another example of how the bleeding heart libertarian mentality goes too far and becomes a sanctioning of the victimizer.

        • Libertymike

          Andrew manifests cognitive dissonance with this gem:
          “At least some of us here at (maybe all of us) believe that the government ‘is significantly responsible for causing and perpetuating poverty’ (I borrow that way of putting it) and that if this is the case, it would be wrong to suddenly and immediately cut programs aimed at alleviating that poverty.”

  • David Friedman

    ” If we are to have a government, we must have taxation in some form.”

    I don’t think that’s correct. One could imagine a government that claimed some special rights, such as the right to a monopoly of retaliatory force, but funded itself entirely by selling services to willing customers. Rights protection, after all, is not a public good–it’s perfectly possible for a government to refuse to protect the rights of people who haven’t paid it to do so.

    • martinbrock

      People with rights protected by this service want rights more valuable than the price of protecting them. The rights protected are neither natural nor handed down on stone tablets. They are artifacts emerging from interactions between the state and its rent seeking title holders.

      Imagining a world without nominal “taxes” doesn’t solve this problem. Taxes are only the purest form of monopoly rent. Ruling out taxes does not rule out monopoly rents or rent seeking.

    • Chmee

      Rights protection is not a public good? How would you defend that statement?

      And if you can provide some argument that is even remotely reasonable, are then also saying that those who are unable to afford to pay the governemnt for that protection should remain powerless ad subserviant to those that can? Wouldn’t that become characterized as a plutocracy, the rich in perpetual domination over the poor?

      Oh, wait, that’s exactly the kind of government we have now. Never mind

    • Will McLean

      “Purchase of a rights protection contract is voluntary, and payment is due April 15th. Another service we sell to willing customers is the names and addresses of people that have chosen not to purchase a rights protection contract.”

      Nominally not a tax, but I’m not sure I see the difference in practice

      • martinbrock

        Of course, if you don’t purchase rights protection from us, we are free to violate any rights you imagine.

        • Chmee

          They feel free to do so whether you purchase it or not. you just get ‘special treatment’ if you don’t.

    • ThaomasH

      One “could imagine” many things, but the Constitution established a state with powers to tax.

    • Jameson Graber

      “Rights protection, after all, is not a public good”

  • ben

    Your mobster analogy is flawed.

    Government employees are not the “customers” of the mobster’s “protection service”, they’re co-conspirators.

    The proper analogy would be: The police has raided the mobster’s lair and impounded the loot they stole from the latest jewellery store robbery. Now the mobsters can’t pay their underlings and helpers.

    Does that mean the police should refrain from giving the loot back to the jewellery store owner, and instead hand it out to said mobster underlings?
    After all, they have “planned their lives given the promise of a regular paycheck, they have […] expectations that are being set back”.

    I don’t think so.
    The property should be given back to its rightful owner.

    • Bryan C. Winter

      The point it is still that it is wrong to reneg on your obligations. If you want to lower taxes, you lower spending. You don’t spend money for a service like labor and then refuse to pay.

      I hardly think you could call a park ranger or an accountant on the government payroll an immoral actor, that should tax money be reclaimed by the people, that they are not entitled to pay for their work.

      So for a government to reneg on its obligations is once again wrong. However its power to write laws means that it often can and will do that.

      • Sean II

        You’re using the snapshot theory of morality, which works wonders by removing all context. Why, anything can be a crime against humanity when that method is used!

        Park rangers and government accountants profit in countless ways by the involuntary manner in which their pay is collected. In exchange for that inestimable benefit, they have to endure a couple weeks of furlough every decade or so.

        If this constitutes a meaningful breach of contract, then I should be able to sue British Petroleum on the grounds that, every now and then, I get a Canadian penny mixed in with my change.

        Compared to the overall value of the federal worker’s “contract”, including pay, benefits, pension, ease, comfort, and security, these furloughs are the very essence of de minimus.

        • Bryan C. Winter

          sorry, i’m not a trained philosopher, and I rock little more than a high school education.

          As such I barely even understand your analogy with the Canadian penny. So the question then is either A) I’m ignorant, or B) your argument hasn’t been articulated clearly enough.

          Most of my Criticism is directed at this line, and not in reference to the article above.

          “Does that mean the police should refrain from giving the loot back to the jewelry store owner, and instead hand it out to said mobster underlings?”

          This analogy is not fair. I was in the U.S. Army under contract for 4 years and thus my pay was covered by U.S. Taxes. Since the money was ‘stolen’ , by your definition, my job with the US army was just a racket, and if someone ever passed a law that required me to pay it back, that would be just like taking jewels from the mobster so that he can’t pay his underlings.

          A government employee is just a person working a job like anyone else. I sense in this chat some hostility for government employees that strikes me as a bit irrational. They behave exactly as any rational person would behave in any rational circumstance. I can’t get mad at government employees the same way I can’t get mad at Companies for Lobbying for tax breaks. The issue is the incentive structure driving the behavior, not the people who are basically only doing what is rational from their own perspective.

          Essentially my point is that taxes are structurally similar to theft, but they are not theft. This is something that liberals do with words, take the meaning of something, and shift it slightly to lend their own arguments rhetorical weight. Taxes aren’t theft, they are taxes, and act in accordance with their own rules, some moral, many immoral, but not as an exact synonym.

          • Libertymike

            Argument by tautology. It fails, as it always does.
            Why are taxes not theft? If A takes B’s property without B’s express, unambiguous consent, how is it not theft?
            From a Christian perspective, I ask, does the commandment read, “Thou shalt not steal unless it is the united states government?”

          • BallsAndStrikes

            Because it assumes property rights pre-exist government. Obviously they do not – you only have a property right in the stuff the government says you have a property right in. I may be able to keep trespassers off my land but I can’t prevent them from breathing my air, looking at my land or flying over it. Why not? After all, they are stealing my molecules, photons and airspace!! Because the government says I do not own those things.

          • ben

            Well technically taxes are not ‘theft’, they are ‘extortion under threat of force’.

            (Or in case you don’t cooperate, ‘armed robbery’.)

          • reason60

            The idea that you did not agree to the social contract, so therefore you don’t have to participate in it, is entirely unconvincing.
            The social contract doesn’t require your agreement- it takes the form of an “If/Then” statement, on the part of the rest of us in society.
            IF you want us to protect your property/ enforce your contracts/ etc. THEN we will only do so under certain conditions, including you paying us for our service to you.
            You can withdraw from this bargain any time- just don’t ask us to do anything for you.

          • Libertymike

            And if we do not want your services? I mean we as the numbers are growing by the minute.

          • reason60

            Explain how that might work, or better yet, explain why the rest of us should want to take that offer. What benefit is there for us?

          • Sean II

            Sorry, but in this case…it’s A).

        • Libertymike

          Even cartoonish anarcho-free enterprise-individualists get this right. Of course, they are apt to be the intellectual superiors to those who like to “nuance” their libertarianism.

      • TracyW

        It’s indeed wrong to renege on your own obligations.
        However government generally involves creating obligations for other people. Often politicians promise that they’ll restrain spending and then break their promise once in power.
        What obligation do you have to obligations that someone else assigned to you without your consent? And indeed sometimes assigned despite explicit promises not to?

  • AP

    Allow me to play Devil’s Advocate: the people receiving money from the government for the services we deem non-essential (non-essential being defined however you like as I don’t think it greatly affects the argument) were receiving money which had been illegitimately obtained, and hence were receiving stolen property. They either knew this, or ought to have realised it. Hence they do not have a legitimate right to their wages – the case is less analogous to a mobster ceasing to protect a business, than a mob boss refusing to pay the people below him after a scam failed to work.

    An alternative argument might be that the money to pay people has to come from somewhere; thus there is a choice between continued exploitation of the taxpayer, or starting to exploit the employee; out of those two, the taxpayer is in no way responsible for their situation, whereas the employee might perhaps have found a different job. Hence the exploitation of the employee would be preferable, though still morally wrong.

  • martinbrock

    Yada, yada, yada.

  • I am posting these questions on a bunch of websites. Seems to me these are really important:
    1. Is there an end point to all the increasing government debt?
    2. If so, what is it and what happens when it’s reached?
    3. If not, does this mean debt will increase forever so there’s no point in worrying?

    • Chmee

      Theoretically it is possible to continue increasing the government debt forever, but there would be some serious consequences, like hyper inflation, and a loss of confidence in the purchasers of that debt. Those consequences might tend to negate my premise that it could continue forever, but what could happen, and what has been happening is that the Treasury and the Fed (esp the Fed) have been the biggest buyers, and current holders of that debt. It’s all rather convoluted of course.

      My thought is that it will have to end, and in the immortal words of Chairman Greenspan (stolen from a quote about a different debt bubble), it will all end very badly….

    • adrianratnapala

      I am not an economist. All I can do is regurgitate.

      1. Debt can safely increase indefinately as long is it remains proportional to GDP. As the debt-to-GDP ratio increases, the risk of a crisis rises. But there is not much agreement about what ratios begin to be unsafe.

      2. Lots of different things can happen. E.g. the government can’t borrow enough to finance its needs, and is forced into severe austerity. Or the government prints its debts away starting severe inflation, where prices rise faster than wages.

      3. Debt-to-GDP ratio cannot increase forever, but the failure mechanisms are murky and their timing fundamentally unpredictable. This causes people to imagine the crises can’t happen. This psychology is where analogies to Ponzi schemes come into play.

      I *think* the answers 1,2 and most of 3 are nearly consensus among economists and the real arguments are about whether the real-world debt level is safe given the circumstances. But I might be wrong about that.

      • good_in_theory

        It doesn’t seem that there’s really any reason for debt-to-GDP to be the special thing to focus on though. If interest rates on debt are in secular decline or you have good reason to believe they will decline, then one could bear more debt with as much or less risk. And as a country becomes wealthier, they can be more leveraged, because more of their expenditures and the expenditures of the populace are relatively discretionary. Getting blood from a stone and all that.

        Increasing debt-to-gdp would seem to imply bad consequences only *if* interest rates are stable or rising and/or gdp or gdp per capita is stable or falling.

    • Damien S.

      4. Has the deficit [not debt] increased or decreased while Obama’s been president?

  • Sean II

    Thanks for the smoking gun, Andrew. This is one of those moments, far too rare in life, when one can sit back and say with calmest certainty, “Okay, okay…I thought so before, but now I know they’re definitely doing it on purpose”.

    The “it” in question is: finding out what most libertarians are saying about a given topical thing, and then laboriously straining to say the opposite.

    In better moments, that tendency makes for some interesting discussion around here. Properly done, self-trolling can be healthy for a community of like-minded people, who might otherwise fall into the bad habit of harmonizing every little thought and feeling.

    But this, today, is just bullshit. A GS-11 working in Huntsville Ala-fucking-bama makes $75,000 a year, works an annual average of 4.2 days a week, and enjoys a nearly priceless level of lifetime job security.

    A libertarian asks me to feel sorry for that guy because he might have to wait a few weeks before he gets his rent…I know that libertarian is straight messing with me.

    • martinbrock

      I was a GS-something working in Huntsville Ala-fucking-bama during the last shutdown, and I still remember the trauma of our extended paid vacation. We were all paid retroactively of course. None of us lost a job, and decades later, the agency, which was already archaic decades ago, persists.

      I don’t hear anything from the Congress about eliminating, or even effectively mothballing, NASA. The debate always centers on the most recent boondoggle, Obamacare in this case. Existing boondoggles are sacrosanct.

      • Sean II

        No doubt the trauma of that experience is what led you to become interested in libertarian ideas. You must have thought “Gadzooks! I have suffered an unconscionable temporary delay in the flow of my federal paychecks. Who but an anarchist or a minarchist can help me get through this terrible moment?”

        • martinbrock

          I had my anarchist/minarchist moment as an idealistic teenager then spent years at NASA in cynical denial, after stumbling into a position there.

    • Bryan C. Winter

      It’s not a question of feeling sorry though. Moral imperatives and who has to suffer or not are irrelevant. Furthermore this GS-11 is worth as much on the private market or more. No engineer would ever move to Huntsville unless there was NASA a there.

      A contract is a contract. The shutdown is not something that ‘needs’ to happen. It is an indication of a process that has already failed to align spending with taxation levels.

      Also i’m a fan of cutting probally 90% of the budget, but i’m a science guy who considers himself a supporter of science BEFORE he is a supporter of libertarianism. In fact my libertarian beliefs were informed by scientific ones, namely rationality, and exponential technological progress as a product of economic competition, dwarfing any gain to be had by redistribution.

      But Science and technology is one of those things, where the pay off for an investment that private industry won’t make, even if it has a certain amount of waste built in, is more than worth it. Nasa has paid for itself, and if it is even 5% efficient at catalyzing the creation of private spaceflight, it actually makes sense. Nasa does a ton of stuff, so I consider the 18 Billion we spend (bout 1% of the federal budget) to be well spent.

      In fact, I would even argue for less congressional oversite. If Nasa could do what it wanted to in terms of picking facilities, and allowed to take more risks the way a private company does, it could do alot more for alot less.

      • martinbrock

        I moved to Huntsville to work for Intergraph and only ended up at NASA later. Most engineers working in Huntsville do not work for NASA or for a NASA contractor. More work for the military-industrial complex. That NASA engineers are valuable in the private sector is the best possible argument for eliminating the agency.

      • Fallon

        “Nasa has paid for itself…” How do you prove this?

        Let me anticipate the claim that since some of the discoveries by NASA have led to profit in the private sector that it retro-justifies NASA’s existence. Many have indeed profited. But profit, socially considered, needs to be given realistic context–common language– the wider the better. There are few means available to man in this regard. One, completely indispensable, such device is the profit-loss sheet. It is derived through entrepreneurial calculation– using prices that can only come from voluntary exchange of property. There is no substitute.

        So, any claims of “profit” concerning NASA is utterly confused. When moneys were taxed and inflated to provide NASA– no exchange took place.Further, NASA bureaucrats do not have any means to cost account their own day to day existences. Is Admin X a proper use of resources? NASA does not know. The web of displacements of market emergence do not stop there– but you must admit that exchange is missing all over the place. And even when NASA buys materials from private producers- these prices and costs are distorted outcomes. How is it possible to have any realistic assessment of demands on scarce resources in NASA’s situation?

        Now, one may say that NASA is too important to worry about its cost–the serfs are too stupid to know what is good for them– but what would that make you? At any rate, technocratic means are not able to overcome economic reality. Technocracy should not be conflated with economics. What are the consequences of doing without economic rationality?

        NASA is indefensible from an economic point of view.

  • Your fourth paragraph makes what strikes me as the most essential point. “Essential” and “Non-Essential” services, in this context, are distinguished by the government’s own criteria, for the government’s own ends. Many of the worst things that government does, from a libertarian perspective, it will keep on doing. And many of the things it will stop doing under a shutdown are not only less harmful, but probably things that it only ought to stop doing after it stops doing certain other things. A good rule of thumb is that the state probably ought to stop breaking people’s legs before it starts taking away the crutches it gave them afterwards.

    • Jeremy McLellan

      See but that’s the beauty of political compromise. Republicans and Democrats have good ideas and bad ideas. Libertarians and socialists, conservatives and liberals, they all have good ideas and bad ideas. With politics, we can all get together, compromise, and just do the bad ideas.

    • Sean II

      But, Matt…you’re looking at this all wrong. Since we all know the shutdown is mostly fake and obviously temporary, it’s ridiculous to fret over its impact on anyone. It’s main impact is that it has no main impact. One is reminded of the old joke about a group of neurotics who panic when the pharmacy intercom announces “sorry folks, we’re all out of placebo”.

      Besides, the federal employees who get temporarily furloughed are NOT crutch recipients for purposes of your analogy. Their employment is not properly regarded as a charitable function. They’re just little-league leg breakers, working the margins of a big-league racket.


      Of course I have previously heard this “crutches” metaphor, but dont find it convincing. These crutches often have the effect of insuring that the patient never walks again. How well have they worked for the Native American and African-American communities? Having broken these legs, it would have been better for the state to allow these groups to heal themselves. The government is no better at rectification than anything else.

      • Sean II

        Good point. The state doesn’t really provide crutches to people with broken legs. What it provides is more like periodic shots of novocaine. These deaden the pain temporarily, but in doing so they guarantee the underlying injury will be made worse.


          If life is not depressing enough for you, visit the local rez, and you will jump off the nearest bridge.

  • Steven Horwitz

    I largely agree. As I wrote on Facebook: Public choice has something to say about how governments will “shut down” as well. Because the “shutting down” will involve pain to those most vulnerable, because that gets votes, you can believe that what gets “shut down” will hardly be “non-essential” and will often be those things that government does to try to fix messes it has created. To continue to spy on people’s phones, kill innocent people abroad, etc. while cutting off Social Security checks to those who have, quite innocently, planned their lives around them seems ethically wrong. Breaking people’s legs and then taking away the crutches you gave them as compensation is indeed cruel.

    If I was sure the shutdown would really shut down the worst things that government does, and the things it does that are not at least attempts to make up for the harm it causes elsewhere, I’d be celebrating. But I know enough public choice to know that 1) this is not a shut down and it’s all a bunch of politics and 2) the “shut down” will do little to stop the real evils of government and will largely harm politically valuable innocents.

    Instead of partying with glee about the shutdown, libertarians would do more for the world and themselves by reading a book or writing an op-ed, or rewatching the finale of Breaking Bad, or coming up with entrepreneurial workarounds so that people just don’t want or need the state anymore.

    • Sean II

      Okay, but Social Security benefits don’t actually get cut off. Do you really not know that, or are you pretending not to for the sake argument?

      There’s a reason why public choice calls it the “Washington Monument” ploy, instead of the “Starving Granny” ploy. Reason: no actual grannies will be starved in this (nor any other) episode of budgetary theater.

      Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there’s some piece of information about emergency cuts to Medicare that is somehow absent from every other news platform. But…unless someone can supply me a list of “innocents harmed” where innocents does not = federal park rangers, I’m still calling bullshit on this whole thread.

      • Steven Horwitz

        Yeah, have since corrected that on FB. Use it as a proxy for other benefits.

        • Sean II

          I renew my objection: I am unaware of any transfer payments or other welfare-type benefits that actually stop during a government shutdown.

          The main “benefit” being “cut” (temporarily and always with full restitution later) is the salaries of federal workers. This is not, and should not be, upsetting to anyone…not even them.

          There is a very good reason why most news sites are running pictures of park rangers this morning. It’s because THAT is the best example anyone can come up with, of a sympathetic victim in this charade.

          • Alex H

            WIC is shut down.

          • Sean II

            Wrong. W.I.C. is funded by means of a cash pipeline from the feds to the states. There is an interval, ranging from a couple weeks in some states to a couple months in others, between any cut-off in federal money and the exhaustion of the cash already in the pipeline.

            W.I.C. benefits are still being delivered, even as we speak.

          • Alex H

            Wrong. WIC benefits are *already* not going to some who would have gotten them.

          • Damien S.

            “a week or so”
            $7 billion annually.

  • Grant

    Sounds like government workers are getting a taste of what job insecurity is like – which the rest of live with every day.

    • Sean II

      Don’t fall for that false comfort. Federal workers are not tasting anything like real job insecurity. They know this is temporary. They know they’re getting “their” money back. They know this is all fake.

      • Alex H

        What reason do you have for confidence that the scenario you’ve described is the worst case? Couldn’t there be people who have expenses that can neither wait nor be covered by available loans?

        • Sean II

          There can be such people, but such people cannot demand our sympathy.

          At any given time, I have cash and liquid assets enough to live for two years with no income. Two years…and I often feel like a slacker, because probably I should have much more than that.

          If a federal employee can’t manage to insulate himself against two weeks or two months of furlough, then he has problems that go far beyond a mere government shutdown.

          So, yeah: what I offered was the worst case scenario anyone should give a shit about, when it comes to federal employees on deferred pay vacation.

          • Alex H

            Your lack of imagination is impressive.

          • Sean II

            …says the guy who can’t supply an example, nor even a hypothetical, to serve his own point.

          • Alex H

            …says the guy who can’t supply any reason to believe *his own contention* that the worst case scenario is X.

        • Grant

          So what? Their expenses are paid out of my earnings. Since I want them all to go home anyway, and get real, productive jobs, it’s not terribly worrisome to me if they can’t pay an expense.

          I mean, I don’t recall getting a lot of empathy when the IRS made some incorrect assumptions about what I owed them. Just deadlines and threats.

    • reason60

      Yes, Ivan’s goat is finally getting sick.

    • Alex H

      I am confused. Do you think insecurity is good and so worth celebrating when other people obtain it? Or do you think it is bad for a person and malevolently wish it on others?

  • CalderonX

    I’m skeptical that your opening paragraph accurately describes what is going on here. For any regular business in the US, employment is at-will. If a company furloughs people because it’s in difficult economic straits, we don’t believe that it’s broken any contract — precisely because there was no contract for guaranteed employment. Instead, all that company has to do is pay for time actually worked to fulfill its part of the bargain. US government employees may have more protections that at-will employees, but even though protections are not considered to apply where the the government lacks money to pay them.

    Likewise, whether A has broken a contract with B depends on the terms of the contract. For example, if B is the supplier to A under a requirements contract with no minimum quantity, then if A decides to stop ordering goods it has not breached any contractual obligation. Relatedly, if a contract contains a provision saying that any purchases are contingent on A receiving funding, and A does not receive funding, then A does not breach the contract by ceasing to obtain goods from B. Thus, we can’t really know whether A is true unless we know what the government contracts say.

    Moreover, as you note, many of the government’s payments will continue. Indeed, they will continue for items like Social Security and Medicare that under US law are not contractual obligations of the US and can be stopped or changed at any time by it.

    In short, I think there’s insufficient evidence for the first step of your argument.

    • Alex H

      Not all employment in the US is at-will.

      • Eccdogg

        If the feds have broken their contract the workers should take them to court.

        But my guess is that in fact there is no such contract that forbids furloughs.

  • Fundamental to libertarianism is the belief that employment relationships are voluntary. This means that government workers chose to work for the government with an understanding of the associated risks and benefits. Many of us have faced situations – especially since the most recent downturn – in which our employers have missed payroll. It sucks, but welcome to the real world. There is no reason civil servants should be especially insulated from this sort of thing. It is part of the universe in which we live.

    Thus, I am not sympathetic to the argument that government employees who get sent home without a paycheck are being treated unfairly.

    • Jeremy McLellan

      Yeah but in the real world a business in debt would not lay off the janitor while continuing to pay the employee who shot the janitor.

      • I don’t think there is any useful comparison to be made between federal government budgetary politics and murder in an office building.

        • Jeremy McLellan

          OK here’s the non-snarky response: The government isn’t even remotely run like a business. It does not hire or fire people based on what is actually essential to providing services. The government shut down is not “the real world” of hard-scrabble economics 101. It’s like a corporation going into debt and threatening to fire the people that everyone likes instead of the people who are hurting the company. Should it fire everyone? Maybe! But the government doesn’t run on money. It runs on votes and whoever gets the votes decides how to take the money from those who didn’t vote for them.

    • Joel Oliver

      Agreed. As a person who was laid off during the initial downturn in 2008, I find myself very unsympathetic to these people’s cries for help. Do what I did in 2008, and get yourself on career builder. My largest regret from back then was waiting until I was unemployed to find my next career opportunity.

      • Bryan C. Winter

        They haven’t cried for help, at least not in the context of this post. We are just commenting that a government that has a contract should meet the obligations of that contract, as an individual or a business would make.

        Ultimately a government shutdown doesn’t even save money, so being ‘for’ this is counter productive at the least. Case in point … Most people oppose Obamacare, but most people Also oppose shutting down the government over Obamacare. The strategy is counter-productive, and I can’t support it.

        Now using the debt ceiling for leverage to cut spending is something I support. But this was a political ploy by Cruz to ingratiate himself with a particular element of the republican party and to shine his credentials. This is proof of why governments can’t be trusted with the money they have.

        • Joel Oliver

          Not sure where I said I was for or against the shutdown, and that has nothing to do with the topic at hand. The fact that it doesn’t save money is enough to demonstrate that it isn’t actually a shutdown. How on earth can an organization downsize in the neighborhood of 1/4 of it’s staff, and not save any money? That makes no sense.

          What is this contract I keep hearing about? Are government employees not at will? I’m an at will employee. I can quit and leave at any time, and my boss can fire me at any time… is this not the same for those in the public sector? What contract are we violating by laying these people off? This is just absurdity.

          If we want to whine about benefit checks not getting mailed out, fine. As far as I am aware that isn’t the case, all of that spending is “mandatory” and apparently lives on even in a “shutdown”. So what contract are we violating?

      • Alex H

        Weird. I would have thought that being laid off would have familiarized you with the ways in which being laid of is bad for a person. Or did you discover that it is not bad for a person?

        • Joel Oliver

          I turned it into a positive, by advancing my career, and they can too, by leaving the public sector.

  • Jim Chappelow

    Andrew’s argument is badly flawed. It begs the question from the outset, by assuming that A’s contract with B is valid and enforceable in the first place. It’s basic principle of contract law that contracts over criminal acts (B’s services) are never valid in the first place.

    • purple_platypus

      You seem to be confusing law with morality.

  • Kyle Walker

    The most important question raised by this article surely must be:

    What prevents you from fully embracing anarchism?

  • Tom

    In the market, if a business begins to lose money (whatever the reason) they lay off workers. How is this different (other than they will get to come back to the job since it’s a furlough)? The company (government) had a board meeting as required by its bylaws, and the result was that the heads of the business are temporarily in a bind with regards to their finances. So they have laid off the non-essential workers while they settle it. It sucks, but what is the moral obligation here?

  • daniilgorbatenko

    Your crucial mobster analogy fails to support your case for a very simple reason. For a mobster to help his “client” he doesn’t have to take more money by force from other people. IOW, the analogous obligation would be for politicians to pay government employees from their own pockets.

  • Pingback: Government Shutdown | The Existential Christian()

  • Excellent!

  • TracyW

    There is a difference here:
    A plans to pay B with C, D, etc’s money. Quite a few members of the alphabet did not consent to A’s plans, quite a few voted for A’s predecessor (A’) on the basis that A’ promised not to overspend and were furious when A’ broke that promise. What obligation do those people have to B? They’ve already tried to stop those commitments being made. What obligation does A have to keep A’s promises?

  • Damien S.

    Apparently transportation safety (like, investigating horrible crashes) is non-essential.
    Of course, ‘essential’ just means “work without pay”.
    But hey, NTSB is just a bunch of thieves, right libertarians?

    • Libertymike


    • martinbrock

      You link an article on an event that you say is not being investigated.

  • David Friedman

    I think the fundamental problem here is that you are treating the government as an actor with its own resources to be used to fulfill its obligations. The argument looks rather different if the mobster can only provide protection by robbing other people to pay the salary of the employees of his who provide it.