Misconceptions of Government Shutdowns


As the United States finds itself amid another government shutdown, it’s time to clear up misconceptions about what actually happens during such an event.

Unfortunately for libertarians, very little of the government actually shuts down. This is especially true of the current shutdown, which is only considered a “partial” shutdown. Government programs considered the most essential, like entitlement programs (including Social Security, Medicare, and SNAP), border security, and defense, remain functional. Even some inessential government operations like the Smithsonian Museum will still be running during the shutdown.

Unfortunately for taxpayers, these government shutdowns make government inefficiency even worse, often costing just as much (if not more) without any of the revenue. Even though some government services actually are shut down, Congress usually approves backpay for all government employees affected by it. This means that government workers are paid for their missed time without having actually done productive work.

Government-run parks and museums normally bring in some revenue to cover costs. During a shutdown, costs are still being paid, or at least will be paid after the shutdown, but potential revenue will be lost.

Shutdowns also harm private industry. Shutdowns don’t nullify regulations and red tape from government bureaucracy, but actually make it worse. Businesses still have to comply with regulations involving licenses, permits, and inspections, which require processing and paperwork by the government. During shutdowns where licensing departments are affected, this means even longer waiting times and delays before private industry can act in ways that government enforces permit requirements for.

According to Bloomberg, US liquor exporters and Alaskan king crab fishermen were just two of many groups harmed by the government shutdown back in 2013. US export certificates were delayed, causing some American liquor to sit idle at ports, waiting to be approved for export. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) was part of the 2013 shutdown, which normally sets harvest levels and issues permits prior to the Alaskan king crab fishing season. Since all government regulations were still in effect, crab fishermen were unable to begin their work until the NOAA was able to complete its work after the government shutdown ended.

The government has tangled itself so far into the economy that many parts of the market have no choice but to rely on some government functions to continue operating. When those government offices shut down, what was once an inconvenient pathway becomes a roadblock, with no way around.

It appears that during a government shutdown, all the worst parts of government are still up and running, and the bureaucracy becomes operates slower. During a shutdown, permit requirements effectively become temporary bans as the offices distributing these permits close. Government restricts free enterprise and requires entrepreneurs to navigate through its agonizingly slow system, which sometimes stops altogether during a shutdown.

If government shutdowns weren’t such a misnomer, they might actually be a good thing. If government’s grasp on the private sector weakened for a short period, far more good than harm would result. Unfortunately, the most damaging and constricting parts of government remain untouched by shutdowns.

The only possible benefit of a government shutdown could be that it serves as a reminder of the incredible amount of spending required to keep government functioning, and that government cannot be relied on to keep its promises, especially when those promises require taxpayer funding.

This article represents the views of the author, and not those of Being Libertarian LLC.

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Nathan A. Kreider is the host of The Conversation, a podcast about ideas and how to spread them. He also publishes a blog and video content, including short book reviews, which can be found on his website nkreider.com. He can be contacted by email via [email protected]