In some ways, the Trump era has become an inadvertent experiment in small government. The president certainly didn’t campaign as a limited-government conservative, but he has governed as one in some important ways—and not just in the admirable job the administration has done scaling back the onerous regulatory state.
After more than 500 days in office, the Trump White House still had vacancies in hundreds of executive branch positions. Over 200 of the 665 key posts that require confirmation by the Senate were left empty. Dozens of roles at the State Department, including important ambassadorial appointments, still remain unfilled. Thirteen inspector general offices–tasked with preventing mismanagement in the 73 departments and agencies they oversee–were abandoned. And since personnel turnover of senior non-cabinet secretary roles in President Trump’s administration is higher than his last six predecessors, many key departments are being managed by acting officials—career civil servants and professional bureaucrats.
Despite all this, the country is still humming along. And now, over a month into the longest partial government shutdown in American history, advocates for limited government might be tempted to conclude that this is evidence that we labor under far more government than we need. That’s surely a justified conclusion. From a conservative perspective, paring back the federal government’s remit isn’t just an economic but a moral imperative. But conservatives would do well to distinguish small government from dysfunctional government. An ethos that advocates frugality and private-sector solutions to address social maladies is uniquely vulnerable to the charge that it cannot competently manage the public sector. The longer this shutdown continues, the more likely it is that this charge will stick in the public imagination.
There is a callous strain of political commentary on the right that welcomes the economic hardship brought about by the shutdown because it is primarily located in Washington, D.C. Given the concentration of wealth around Washington, most of which is the result of capital seized from the productive economy, the thinking goes, the District could do with a haircut. Besides, they all vote Democratic anyway. This is a profound misreading of America’s charitable spirit. Few welcome the sight of breadlines in Washington, reports that federal workers are pawning family heirlooms to make ends meet, or the news that food banks are sprouting up in the capital amid this political impasse.
Moreover, those who view suffering inside the Beltway as necessary collateral damage are ignoring the deprivation and dysfunction that has spread throughout the country as a result of this debacle.
Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz said on Tuesday that the service personnel under his command have had to “rely on food pantries and donations to get through day-to-day life.” Tens of thousands of law enforcement agents in departments ranging from the Bureau of Prisons, the ATF, DEA, FBI, and the U.S. Marshals are working without pay. They are joined by over 100,000 TSA employees and border protection agents. Many thousands more in agencies including the Department of Commerce, the National Weather Service, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the IRS are furloughed or have been asked to perform their duties without compensation. With national parks closed, some park service employees have begun to lose their jobs entirely.
Some will claim that the checks these federal workers miss are negligible because they will receive retroactive pay when the government reopens. But the longer this shutdown continues, the worse their conditions become. What’s more, hundreds of millions of dollars are not flowing from public-sector accounts into private-sector hands, leaving a lot of economic activity on the table. The chairman of the New York Federal Reserve estimated that the shutdown could cut quarterly GDP growth by as much as 1 percent.
If the Americans who feel the pinch of that economic strain don’t resent the shutdown enough already, the public sector dysfunction that may soon be coming is sure to push them over the edge. IRS union leaders expect work absences to surge as the shutdown drags on, threatening the government’s ability to process taxpayer refunds. Public services directed toward helping domestic abuse victims have been scaled back with charitable and nonprofit organizations struggling to pick up the unanticipated slack.
The Indian Health Service is not funded, and hundreds of physicians, nurses, and pharmacists cannot serve the country’s Native American community. The shutdown is expected to delay the initial public offerings of firms like Uber and Lyft, and could kill them entirely if the impasse extends into mid-February. Likewise, families on SNAP benefits have been warned that the program may not be able to meet its obligations if the shutdown doesn’t end before March. Civil cases before the Department of Justice are postponed indefinitely. Some consumables are not being inspected by the FDA. And so on.
The private institutions could fill a lot of the gaps left by the retreating public sector, but not in the way this retraction has been engineered. The conservative case that government is too big and too unwieldy is buttressed by ample evidence. If the results of conservatives’ policy preference look less like efficiency and more like disorder, though, they will win few converts to the cause. What’s more, they risk seeming indifferent to the real shutdown-induced pain endured by thousands of Americans.
There’s a compelling and convincing case against big government, but this isn’t it. Conservatives should be wary of tethering themselves and their ideology to what seems to the unconverted like an avoidable disaster.