Andrew Cohen over at Bleeding Heart Libertarians argued earlier this week that the partial U.S. government shutdown is immoral on libertarian grounds. Cohen’s opening analogy is confusingly opaque, but if you can get past the first paragraph, he does bring up some interesting points.
First, Cohen avers that even though the government does a lot of things libertarians dislike, the shutdown won’t actually stop many of them.
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.
This seems largely right to me. As much as I’d like to believe that shutdown equals a leaner, more efficient government, intellectual honesty requires me to admit it’s more complicated than that. Unlike the sequester earlier this year, which had its own problem of simply cutting a swath of funding across much of the federal budget when a more incisive cuts would have been better, the shutdown allows a fair amount of “discretionary” activity regardless of funding. For example, it’s easy to get riled up about groups of Honor Flight veterans who can’t visit the WWII memorial because there’s no money to pay park rangers. In the grand scheme of things, however, I think that tracking possible large-scale disease outbreaks is closer to a legitimate function of a central government than keeping monuments open — yet the CDC is currently working with a skeleton crew. I don’t expect many of the congress critters who glad-handed veterans this week and voted to fund the VA and national parks will be making trips to Atlanta any time soon.
Cohen resists the hypothetical and claims that the shutdown is actively harming people now.
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.
Again, I agree with Cohen’s premise: People who are getting a paycheck are hurt when they stop getting that paycheck, regardless of why they stop getting that check. This is fairly common sense.
Where I diverge with Cohen’s analysis, though, is in his linking of a paycheck to a contract. Foremost, it’s unclear whether Cohen is referring to federal employees or to contractors specifically. In either case, his moral objection with regard to the shutdown and its affect on paycheck recipients is logically problematic.
Federal employment and contracts
If any particular contract being mocked, Cohen hasn’t pointed out what it is. Perhaps he means something like the idea of a social contract – in a classical liberal sense, not a modern progressive one – but if that’s the case, his terminology is ambiguous at best.
Generally speaking, employees in the U.S. are considered “at-will” employees, regardless of whether they work for a government entity or a private organization. According to one source, “About 57 percent of the federal workforce is represented by a union,” but while union membership may give those federal employees additional employment protection, unions like the American Federation of Government Employees seem to be calling for back pay and putting an end to the shutdown, rather than claiming that the furlough itself goes against any existing union contracts or agreements. Likewise, government contractors may have contractual guarantees, but I find it unlikely that a government contract wouldn’t include provision for a shutdown scenario – and pending contractor furloughs indicate my presumption is correct.
In many ways, the shutdown furlough seems to me very much like a temporary layoff, though my good friend Dave has, perhaps rightly, taken me to task for equating the two types of events. In support of my comparison, the furlough forces employees to stop working and prevents them from getting paid. Furthermore, furloughed civilians are apparently eligible for unemployment benefits (though, I’m not clear about how giving furloughed employees back pay might affect such benefits). On other side, according to the Guidelines for Shutdown Furloughs [PDF] published by the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, federal employees are limited in external employment options during furloughs (C.3), a prohibition that wouldn’t hinder someone who was truly laid off.
In either case, both furloughs and layoffs are alike enough in that they are typically driven by a financial crisis of some kind. Thus, rather than worrying about contracts, the ethical question becomes how to resolve the crisis by hurting as few people as possible, a question which New York Times ethicist Randy Cohen attempted to address in relation several massive company layoffs in 2009. It seems that Cohen is attempting to make a similar argument when he writes that “we must work to have the government limited in scope, but limited through moral means.” If so, his argument is buried in cavils about contracts and oblique mob-protection metaphors.
To be clear, I am not making an argument that the shutdown is moral. All I am saying is that, if it is immoral, it has nothing to do with breaking contracts.
I don’t deny that people who rely on federal government paychecks, or federal money in general, are being actively hurt by the shutdown. In such a case, it’s valid to ask who is perpetuating the harm, and why. And like almost any situation involving government, the answer basically depends on your party affiliation: Obama blames Boehner; Boehner blames the president back. Harry Reid tries to get a word in every now and then.
The media has doled out their helpings of blame as well. Thomas F. Schaller at the Baltimore Sun says fault for the shutdown rests with “Tea partiers [who] don’t care about the Constitution.” Fox News always blames Democrats for everything. Over at Reason, Nick Gillespie says that the president is primarily to blame for not knocking heads to pass a budget earlier this year. Meanwhile, Dylan Matthews at The Washington Post‘s Wonk Blog gets hardcore, historically speaking, and blames that effing Federalist, James Madison. Oddly enough, I don’t think anyone has blamed Canada, yet.
All the blame-slinging is over House Republicans’ attempt to delay implementation of the Obamacare individual mandate for one year. Instead of conferring with the House, the Senate continues sending a so-called “clean” continuing resolution (CR) that would fully fund government activities, including Obamacare, at previous budget levels. In return, the House keeps voting on “mini-CRs” to fund individual departments of the government that have broad popular support – except in the Senate, apparently, which has so far rejected them all. Wash, rinse, repeat.
The old aphorism that it takes two to tango is apt here. It’s hard for me to see any side as wholly serious. As my friend Dave (who is going to start getting a big head since I’ve now referenced him twice in one post) said on that inherently edifying debate platform known as Facebook:
If you’re on the left and think we don’t have a spending problem, I can’t take you seriously. If you’re on the right and cutting the military isn’t a significant part of your cuts, I can’t take you seriously. If you think the other guy is evil, I can’t take you seriously.
Which brings me back to Cohen’s argument. While I agree with him that we must work to limit the government through moral means, the very reason we’re here in the first place is because nobody seems to want, or know how, to do that. Instead, our leaders curl up into a fetal position, stick their fingers in their ears and yell at the top of their lungs so they don’t have to hear anyone else. When everyone throws a tantrum, they are all to blame. And, to me, seems the best argument for the inherent immorality of the present shutdown.
Which means, for crap’s sake, it looks like I agree with Chris Christie.