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I Miss My Government! How Libertarians Lose from the Shutdown

David Callahan

The most frustrating thing for advocates of a strong public sector is how Americans tend to take government for granted. As Suzanne Mettler showed in The Submerged State, a great many people who have benefitted from government programs don't acknowledge that fact.

Over 40 percent of people who have received Pell Grants or unemploment benefits or veterans benefits or Medicare or Social Security report that they have "not used a government social program." The percentages are even higher for people who have benefitted from various tax expenditures, such as the home mortgage interest deduction, which Christopher Howard once dubbed "The Hidden Welfare State.

And many Americans are even less aware of other vital roles that government plays in our lives: managing the wireless spectrum so our cell phones and radios work; predicting the path of hurricanes so we can get out of their way; ensuring the safety of food and drugs; and on and on. 

Liberterians benefit from this spectacular cluelessness. It's easier to peddle the fantasy of minimal government when so many Americans aren't aware of the huge, positive role that public goods play in their lives -- even as we are very much aware of the money deducted from our paychecks. 

So at least one positive result of the government shutdown could be to make the public sector more visible -- and give people a clearer glimpse of the libertarian fantasy. 

Of course, I recognize this won't actually happen, since many government functions aren't expected to be disrupted. 

Also, libertarians would argue that a shutdown doesn't simulate their utopia since there isn't time for market or charitable solutions to emerge to take over functions that government now plays. 

But if you look at some of the services that are now stopping, you'll realize that, in fact, there is no market or charitable alternative. For example, government workers who coordinate help for the blind won't be showing up for work today. And if they never returned to work, many blind people would be screwed because there is no money in helping them and because, when blind people relied on charity in earlier times, they led impoverished lives of desperation. Ditto for old people: Before Medicare and Social Security came along, nearly a quarter of old people lived in poverty.

It's easy to forget why many government agencies came into being in the first place. For instance, the federal government has an agency to investigate major industrial and chemical accidents because this task is beyond the capacities of state and local governments. That agency is closed today, so let's hope no disasters happen. 

It's not often we get a finely grained look at what public servants do on a daily basis. So even as Americans recoil at the dysfunctional legislative arm of the federal government, chances are they'll be begging for the rest of their government back if the shutdown goes on for very long.