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 BHL.com (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.