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The Anatomy of a Government Shutdown


Thomas Sowell used to ask his students to imagine a government bureaucracy that had two functions. One function was to provide medicine to sick children, and the other function was to construct statues of Benedict Arnold. He would then ask his students that if the bureaucracy suffered budget cuts, which function would the bureau stop funding?

The intuitive answer to those of us who are not bureaucrats is to cut the funding to Benedict Arnold statues, of course. One might even ask why we are funding statues in honor of a traitor to begin with? But, Sowell would tell his students, the bureaucracy would actually be more inclined to cut funding to the medicine to sick children.


Bureaucrats and politicians, like anybody else, are self-interested individuals, and their interests are to enjoy a bureaucracy with as large a tax-payer-funded budget as possible. When they are faced with budget cuts, it makes no sense to cut funding from programs that the vast majority of taxpayers wouldn’t care to fund in the first place. There would be no outcry. But by cutting funds in an area that creates real pain for certain people within the population — say, sick children or members of the military — the public will predictably erupt with outrage, demanding that the original budget be reinstated (or even increased!) so people don’t suffer.

With President Trump’s demands for tax-payer funds allocated to his border wall, his reaction was to threaten a government shutdown. This tactic seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for politicians who want support for ever-increasing budgets and higher taxes. The last so-called “shut down” only took place five years ago under Barack Obama, and it seems many people have already forgotten the political theater that accompanied it. “Shutting down” the government apparently meant paying government employees to set up traffic cones around monuments and abstaining from making Twitter updates, among other things.

However, while government continued to spend on things such as subsidies to encourage people to eat Idaho-produced caviar and, apparently until only recently, Y2K prevention research, the shutdowns did include the halting of military pay. Of course, as is the nature with military service, the government’s refusal to pay does not release any service member from their legally enforced obligation to complete their term. But just as Dr. Sowell predicted, the mere threat of government employees — military especially — going without paychecks inevitably brings public outrage and calls to pass whatever budget the president demands. No need to even discuss cutting out any of the billions of dollars identified as waste even by non-libertarian organizations .

The reality with government shutdowns is that nearly nothing actually gets shut down. Heaven forbid employees from the Internal Revenue Service go without pay, let alone the politicians themselves. The specter of a government shutdown, accompanied with media interviews from government employees worrying about paying for Christmas presents, is all that’s needed to bully the public into supporting even the most reviled programs.

In the most recent example, Trump has threatened a government shutdown to compel congress to approve funding for a border wall. A recent GoFundMe campaign has demonstrated both that there are people willing to donate their own money – without compulsory taxes – to the project, but also that nowhere nearly enough taxpayers are willing to fund a border wall to the dollar amount that Congress has approved. But with the threat of a so-called “government shutdown,” ever ardent opponents of Trump’s wall have demanded Congress do whatever it takes to prevent the horrors that demagogues predict will ensue.

For libertarians, it’s easy to celebrate the promise of a government shutdown. Unfortunately, even if the threat is carried out, the sad reality is that a government shutdown is not, and never has been, anything more than an engineered tactic to generate a public outcry to allow the government to tax and spend as much as and however it wants. And the tactic always seems to work.


Chris Calton

Chris Calton is the Research Fellow in Housing and Homelessness at the Independent Institute. He received his Ph.D. in History from the University of Florida. He is a former Mises Institute Research Fellow and host of the Historical Controversies podcast.

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