In Friday’s last hour, a federal government “shutdown” was averted by a last-minute deal struck by House Democrats and Republicans to approve a federal budget for the remainder of the fiscal year. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Republicans achieved $39 billion in spending cuts out of a federal budget that will run an approximately $1,600 billion deficit this year alone. The Democrats were able to prevent defunding of Planned Parenthood and minor curbs on the power of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). As a result of the compromise, the 800,000 “non-essential” government employees that would have been laid off will be back at work on Monday, providing their non-essential services without interruption.
Politicians and media pundits ranged from frightened to hysterical at the prospect of this so-called shutdown lasting even a day, as if some epic blight would have consumed the land, marked by cars turned over and burning, wells dried up, and livestock lying dead at the side of the road.
Of course, no reduction in government spending can be discussed without the usual round of Keynesian economic gibberish. So, we also had to hear about how the economy would be devastated due to those 800,000 lost jobs, resulting in the loss of their own spending and the elimination of all of the money those employees help the government spend into the economy. Among the burning cars and dead livestock we would find shanty towns full of former Wall Street billionaires, wiped out by the sudden and devastating drop in demand for their products.
While even less exaggerated claims about the harm that would be caused if the shutdown had occurred are meritless, there is a much more important question to be asked that virtually every media outlet has been silent on. This is not surprising. Like all other political and economic debate in America today, the discussion is completely focused on results. To ask the most important question, we have to shift the discussion from results to rights. On that basis, the distinction made here in terms of essential vs. non-essential services provides a unique opportunity.
The shutdown would not affect the military, any core law enforcement functions, or any other federal government activity deemed “defense of life and property.” This assumes that our present bombing of Libyans is “defense of life and property,” although whose lives or properties are being defended while Libyan lives and property are being destroyed is an inquiry for another day.
The shutdown would not affect entitlement spending, which together with military spending makes up almost three quarters of the present $3.7 trillion budget. Social Security checks would still go out, Medicare and Medicaid claims would still be paid, and HUD landlords would still get their rent checks.
While the most important questions of rights actually revolve around this “welfare-warfare state,” it is not at issue in the so-called shutdown. Only those services deemed by the government itself as “non-essential” would cease. That begs the question:
Can even a democratically-elected government force its citizens to pay for services that everyone acknowledges are not needed?
One must remember that every dollar that the government spends, whether it is bombing some far-off nation, paying medical claims, or investigating the mating rituals of the Namibian Tiger Beetle, has been collected from taxpayers under the threat of violence if they do not pay. If you doubt this, just ask Wesley Snipes. There is a process that you can go through to get approved to visit him where he currently resides. All manner of propaganda is employed to distract the victims of taxation from this basic reality. However, any government, whether elected by the people or autocratically maintained by a military dictator, is invested with the power to force people to pay taxes.
It is this reality that inspires the occasional clear-thinking individual to suggest that there be some limit to what individuals can be forced to pay for, regardless of how their government is constituted. In other words, one must define what government spending is necessary and what is not. Proponents of different political philosophies define “necessary” in terms of government activity in different ways.
For founding fathers in Thomas Jefferson’s camp, individuals could only be forced to pay for the protection of their own life and property, which translates to national defense for the federal government. Their opponents, led by Alexander Hamilton, argued that individuals can and should be taxed for other activities that contributed to “national greatness,” including the building of infrastructure, the maintenance of a large military establishment, and the protection and subsidization of government-connected corporations.
Modern liberals or progressives go a step further, saying that in addition to Hamilton’s program, the government has the legitimate authority to tax individuals for the purposes of providing needed benefits to others, such as retirement benefits, medical care, housing, food, and clothing. Some conservatives argue that this is merely legitimized theft, as the government here is not providing services equally accessible to the whole tax base, but rather transferring wealth from some individuals to others.
In any case, none of those debates were in play in regards to the recently-avoided shutdown. Assuming that the arguments made by both conservatives and liberals are valid, and that all of the above services are necessary for a peaceful and just society, neither conservatives nor liberals would give up anything in a government shutdown. The only services that would be interrupted would be those that both conservatives and liberals agree are non-essential, i.e., UNECESSARY services.
Under what theory of government can individuals be forced to pay for unnecessary government services? They are not needed for individual or national security. They are not needed to ensure “social justice.” By the government’s own admission, they are not needed at all. If individuals can be taxed to underwrite even these services, is there anything at all that they cannot be forced to pay for?
There is a further philosophical question to be answered here in terms of the huge federal deficits that these unneeded services contribute to, which have resulted over the years in a $14 trillion national debt. It is not only present taxpayers’ rights that are in question, but the rights of people who are not even born yet. Even if you believe that the United States government is one “of the people, by the people, and for the people,” do “the people” have the right to force future American citizens to pay for unnecessary services provided to taxpayers today? Won’t those future taxpayers be people? Don’t they have any rights at all?
Looking at the founders again, Thomas Jefferson argued that future generations could not be legitimately forced to pay for any services provided to present taxpayers, not even “essential” services like national defense. His opponent Hamilton made no such philosophical distinction. In fact, he argued that the national debt would be a national blessing, as it would tie the corporate creditors to the government. His only qualification was that the debt not be “excessive.” Hamilton, the original American conservative, believed as conservatives do today that the greatness of the empire (the collective) outweighed the rights of the individual, even those individuals not yet born and therefore unable to give their “consent” via participation in the election process. Who was right, Jefferson or Hamilton?
Sooner or later, anyone truly interested in liberty has to come to the grips with the fact that any taxation, even taxation to provide defense of life and property, violates that natural law that no one should be forced to do anything or deprived of his property to pay for anything, as long as he is not harming others. Once this natural boundary is crossed, the limit of what one person or group can force another to do or pay for must be set artificially by men. Certainly, the most liberal limit on what citizens can be forced to pay for by their government is what the government itself deems as necessary. If government spending cannot be limited even to its own expansive definition of “essential services,” then what right is left to anyone to keep any of their own money? Why not just turn it all over to the government to spend as the government sees fit?
Obviously, if you believe that individuals have any rights at all, you must call for an immediate and permanent government shutdown of all “non-essential services.” This should be the bare minimum limit on government spending even if the government wasn’t running a deficit that represents theft from future generations.
But what of results? Fortunately, the idea that there is a choice to be made between individual rights and the “needs of society” is just another myth propagated by those who wish to extort your money for their own ends. There is no compromise or “balance” needed between individual rights and the benefits of these non-essential government services, because there are no benefits. The quality of life for Americans would be immediately and dramatically improved if they were eliminated.
Primarily, the present roster of 2.1 million federal employees, even in terms of percentage of population, is orders of magnitude larger than the “swarms of officers to harass the people and eat out their substance” sent by King George in the 18th century. Reducing this modern swarm of federal employees by roughly 40% would significantly reduce the amount of government meddling in Americans’ lives and overriding of their otherwise sound decisions about what to spend their money on, how to conduct their business, what to eat, what medical services to purchase, etc.
Assuming that this subset of federal government employees earns the overall average of approximately $100,000 in salary and benefits, this also would be an immediate reduction of $80 billion in government spending, twice the amount cut in the compromise between Republicans and Democrats to pass this year’s budget. That doesn’t count all of the spending associated with these people doing their jobs, which could be as much as $500 billion.
The somewhat popular services provided such as national parks would not cease to exist without the government providing them. In fact, there could be a two-fold benefit in eliminating these particular government services. First, the land and assets associated with them could be sold at public auction, enabling the government to make a huge payment on the existing national debt. Second, these services could be taken over by more competent private enterprises which would risk their own money to provide them. As they would be competing for customers with other amusements such as Disney World or Carribean cruises, they would provide these services with higher quality and at a lower overall cost than the government does. In addition, that cost would be paid voluntarily by those who actually use the services, rather than involuntarily by everyone.
Finally, there would be no loss of demand in the economy due to the wages of those 800,000 employees no longer being spent into the economy. Remember, those wages all represented demand that was forcefully taken away from taxpayers and paid out to those employees. Should those government jobs be eliminated, the money would merely be spent by its rightful owners on whatever they chose to spend it on, rather than spent by other people. Wealth created by productive activity is not increased when forcefully extorted from its rightful owners, and therefore does not decrease when returned to them.
In conclusion, Americans should not be apprehensive about the prospect of a “government shutdown” as defined in the recent budget crisis. They should demand it. Neither conservatives nor liberals would be compromising any of their values. Under even the most “extreme” interpretations of conservative or liberal philosophy, there is no legitimate authority for the government to tax individuals to pay for these services. Eliminating them would provide an immediate fiscal, economic, and social benefit to American society, and Americans would regain a tiny smattering of that liberty we all claim to cherish. New national elections are coming next year. Solving our biggest problems, like entitlement and military spending, will not be on the table. So, let’s set a more achievable goal and at least make this demand: No Non-Essential Government.
© Thomas Mullen 2011