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Friday, October 18, 2013

Essentially Meaningless

How much of what the government does is actually essential?

Americans have endured the tragic trauma of a government shutdown, which meant a roughly 17 percent reduction in Washington’s operations. The other 83 percent, deemed “essential,” remained open.

Really—more than eight of 10 government activities are “essential”? Of course, there are essential government services. But surely not that many.

What really is astounding is how few federal operations truly are essential by any but the most meaningless definition.

Start with the most obvious: defense. Surely “defense” is essential. But most of what is done in the name of America’s defense has nothing to do with defense.

For instance, the Department of Defense is mostly about guarding others. Americans are protecting populous and prosperous Europeans from, well, someone or something. We’re not quite sure who or what. Americans similarly are defending wealthy Japanese who underinvest in the military, and South Koreans who enjoy an economy 40 times the size of that of North Korea.

In fact, 9/11 demonstrated that America’s military was unprepared to actually protect the United States when it was threatened. For that purpose Congress set up an entirely new bureaucracy, the Department of Homeland Security. The DHS at least theoretically is devoted to protecting Americans. However, we really don’t need defense from immigrants seeking to work or from lower-priced foreign goods, both of which the DHS “protects” us from. So parts of the DOD and DHS might be essential—but only parts.

What about the Department of Justice? We need national courts, prosecutors, and law-enforcement officials. But they shouldn’t be doing most of what they do, like arresting, convicting, and imprisoning drug users; creating and enforcing a racial spoils system; or enforcing the panoply of idiotic, useless, and counterproductive economic regulations. 

The U.S. government will always have relations with other states, so the State Department performs a legitimate role. But there’s no reason for so many people in so many facilities doing so many things. After all, modern communications allow contact with foreign governments without having massive, fortress-like embassies in virtually every capital in the world. U.S. officials also do more than foreign relations, such as wasting foreign “aid” on other governments and promoting American commerce.

There’s also a need for a Department of Treasury. After all, even a smaller federal government would have to collect and spend money. However, much of what Treasury does today is not just unessential, but inappropriate—such as enforcing counterproductive trade sanctions.

The Department of Veterans Affairs may be the only fully justified agency. After all, if the U.S. government sends people off to fight on its behalf, it has a moral responsibility to care for them when they return injured. Most of them were sent to fight in unnecessary wars—most recently from Vietnam to Iraq—but that just makes it more essential to treat them correctly. They deserve care.

Beyond these departments, what is truly necessary? In the short term, people are dependent on social assistance, most notably Social Security, Medicare, and a variety of means-tested welfare programs. But in the long run there’s no justification for the first two, which amount to middle-class welfare. After all, they are not real social insurance, funded by their recipients. Indeed, Social Security is an unsustainable generational transfer scheme.

Private assistance is the best means of addressing poverty, irrespective of a person’s age. But even if a government welfare program is justified, it should be nothing like the current system. The Carleson Center for Public Policy recently estimated that Uncle Sam funds 157 means-tested programs. Even if welfare is essential, are 157 separate programs really essential?

Beyond defense and welfare, what else should the federal government do? There’s no justification at all for the wide array of subsidy programs that emanate from Washington. Uncle Sam pays off every interest group with a letterhead and at least two members. Welfare for corporations. Money for farmers. Subsidies for developers and homeowners. Cash for students. Payoffs for small business. Aid for energy firms, conventional and alternative. And much, much more.

Indeed, the Cabinet represents virtually every major interest group. The Commerce Department. Agriculture. The Department of Energy. Housing and Urban Development. The Department of the Interior. Education. The Department of Labor. Transportation. 

One can imagine snatches of legitimate federal authority here and there. Airports. National highways. Parks. Essential national statistics. But most of what these bureaucracies do is to subsidize someone or something, whether universities, businesses, individuals, or even foreign countries.

Same with the innumerable agencies, commissions, and other entities that fill Washington, D.C. They’re useless rip-offs and payoffs, mostly dedicated to mulcting the public for the benefit of someone else. Their very existence is a refutation of the traditional civics-class claim that government operates for the benefit of all. The federal government has become the principal agency through which Americans try to live at other Americans’ expense.

Should we shut down the government? Well, most of it. The bulk of what government does certainly isn’t essential. Most of it isn’t even necessary. Indeed, we would be better off without the vast majority of what the federal government currently does.

For the next government shutdown, we shouldn’t close 17 percent of Washington. We should shutter 83 percent of it—permanently.

  • Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and the author of a number of books on economics and politics. He writes regularly on military non-interventionism.