Dr. Machan teaches political philosophy at Auburn University. His most recent book is Private Rights and Public Illusions (Transaction Books, 1995).
It is a sad spectacle when political leaders lack a coherent framework by which to explain to the public why various official actions being taken are required and, indeed, just. This is the predicament faced by many in Congress when parts of the federal government shut down back in late 1995.
The outcries of employees and their lobbyists should not be the main motivating force behind what the federal government does. The reason for this is simple: the debate should be about whether those who get paid from the moneys collected by the IRS and other taxing agencies really ought to have their jobs in the first place.
Imagine a situation in which a country is undergoing a major revolution—in this case it has finally abolished apartheid. (Of course it isn’t a hypothetical case but some may not remember recent history, so I ask them to use their imaginations as a substitute.) Because of such a revolutionary event, thousands of government employees who have for decades worked in positions related to apartheid lose their jobs. (You could picture something closer to home: the abolition of the military draft or the repeal of prohibition. Or you could make it somewhat more historical and far more drastic: the demise of the Third Reich or the Soviet Union, where thousands of people worked in concentration camps and upon the revolutionary change lost their jobs.)
If one can clearly identify these jobs as serving evil purposes or resting on evil policies, there would be no trouble at all explaining to people why the jobs had to be lost, why those who held the jobs in question ought to seek employment elsewhere, doing decent work, pursuing honorable careers. And there should be no problem showing that many thousands of jobs being held down these days by federal employees—involving the wrongful collection and redistribution of other people’s earnings, forcibly regulating the lives and livelihoods of millions of people administering properties that government has no right to control, and so on—are morally wrong. They do not, of course, involve the blatant, drastic evils we know were being assisted by state workers in South Africa, Dachau, or the gulags but they are, nonetheless, morally insidious. When the public finally elects politicians hoping they can appreciate the evil of such works, it is the business of these politicians to work for their abolition.
Unfortunately, the current crop of national leaders calling for cuts in the scope and size of government are ill-equipped to make the moral case for the abolition of these jobs. All they can say is that slowing down the pace at which the federal government perpetrates its questionable business is a necessary move in a political gambit. All they can talk about is the need for coming up with a balanced budget plan. Of course, if that is all that’s at stake, the employees whose jobs are being put on hold and their advocates can come back with the outcry that their lives are being played with. This makes supporters of government downsizing look callous, heartless, and precisely as mean-spirited as the critics claim they are.
In one’s personal life one tries to balance his budget but usually if emergencies arise, one is willing to go into debt or even extend one’s indebtedness. It would be unthinkable to refuse to take a child to the doctor just because it means that one’s indebtedness would have to increase. Cost considerations alone are not morally hefty enough to carry the argumentative weight needed to make the policy of downsizing government morally acceptable. Not that economic imprudence is good policy in one’s personal life, in business, or in government. But there are clear cases where such prudence is not the highest virtue. That is when compassion, generosity, charity, or courage may trump considerations of prudence.
But if it is clear that what is at stake is the establishment of justice—which is to say, the abolition of federal government policies that rob from people, that intrude on people’s lives, that violate the principles of government by the consent of those who are governed—then the answer to the loss of jobs would be that such jobs shouldn’t exist in the first place. Those who have gotten used to living off stolen funds will have to rearrange their lives, period. They must not ask for compassion—justice is more important!
Unless some of our political leaders learn to be consistent in their call for justice for the American citizenry, rejecting the idea that it is acceptable to put millions of people—even the poor, elderly, and sick—on the payroll of a government funded by plunder, there will not be serious change in our society. And one consequence will be that not only will injustice continue but the system will ultimately go broke.