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Commentary

All I Want for Christmas Is a Government Shutdown



President Donald Trump is threatening to shut down the government over the Democrats’ refusal to provide funding for a border wall. Pundits on both sides of the isle act as if a shutdown would be a calamity. But, with Christmas just around the corner, a shutdown would be a welcome gift under my tree.

In a meeting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer President Trump demanded $5 billion of funding for a security wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and threatened, “If we don’t get what we want, one way or the other ... I will shut down the government.” He later followed up saying to Senator Schumer, “I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck.”

Congress is back in session on December 19th and, as of today, will have only two days to pass legislation to avoid the shutdown before Christmas. But what’s the big deal if Congress doesn’t pass the needed legislation?

Do you remember the last government shutdown in 2013? Chances are, unless you’re a government employee who was furloughed, you don’t. That’s because for most of us, the loss of “nonessential” government services has little impact on our daily lives. Consider what happened in 2013.

The 2013 shutdown resulted in roughly 40% of non-military government employees being furloughed. National parks and museums were closed, and regulatory functions were scaled back. But Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees still groped us, the National Security Agency (NSA) still spied on people, and military personnel remained at their posts. So, a “shutdown” isn’t really a shutdown. It’s just a scaling back of government activities.

Shutdown Positives

The administration has been scaling back the government’s aggressive regulation of private business since President Trump came to office. A shutdown would accelerate that. In the 2013 shutdown the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) furloughed a reported 45% of its employees and, as a result, for a short period of time most of the seafood, half of the of fruit, and about 20% of the vegetables entering the United States came in uninspected by the federal government.

Do you remember the huge outbreak of foodborne illness? Neither do I. That’s because private businesses have the ability and the incentive to self-regulate. Restaurants and grocers care about their reputations and have a profit incentive to insure the safety of the food they sell. The shutdown just got rid of redundant bureaucrats for a while.

A partial shutdown serves to remind Americans how unimportant and unnecessary many government activities are. In fact, in 2013, the government intentionally tried to make people feel the pain of the shutdown by paying park rangers to close down viewing areas of Mount Rushmore, when simply leaving the viewing areas open had no budgetary cost.

The laid off government employees were the main group complaining about the 2013 shutdown. But government jobs supposedly exist for the benefit of taxpayers, not bureaucrats. If taxpayers don’t miss the provided “services” maybe the jobs shouldn’t exist in the first place.

The Best Gift Of All?

A 2018 shutdown would mean that the legislators and White House were unable to reach a deal to fund a wall along the Mexican border. That would be a plus too. Net migration from Mexico has been negative most years since the great recession. Besides, natural barriers already secure much of the border. Additional fencing would be a waste.

Furthermore, the consensus among economists is that immigration makes the United States wealthier, while doing nothing to decrease net job availability or wages of most native-born citizens. Admitting more immigrants through legal checkpoints is a better way to control migration than building an expensive wall.

A shutdown would be a gift to most Americans. It would curtail wasteful government activities for a while, remind federal bureaucrats in Washington that they’re not entitled to their hefty paychecks, and keep the counterproductive wall proposal in abeyance. That’s a present I’d like to see under my Christmas tree.


Benjamin Powell is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, Director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University. He Independent Institute books include The Economics of Immigration: Market-Based Approaches, Social Science, and Public Policy, Housing America: Building out of Crisis, and Making Poor Nations Rich.


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