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The Shutdown Government: Powerful, Punitive And Petty


There were nearly 6 million living World War II veterans counted in the 2000 U.S. Census. By 2010, there were fewer than 2 million. An estimated 640 World War II Veterans die each day.

Last week the Obama Administration chose to barricade the World War II Memorial to keep aging veterans and other citizens out during the so-called government “shutdown.”

It’s tremendously wasteful to spend taxpayer funds and personnel shutting down an open-air memorial that could be visited at any time of the day prior to the shutdown, whether staff were nearby or not. But more than that, it’s just cruel: World War II veterans are on a race against time to see their memorial.

The closing of high-profile sites for tactical advantage has political benefits. Who can forget how President Bill Clinton ordered the Washington Monument closed during the 1995 shutdown? As the photos of the closures made the evening news, night after night, media pressure mounted on House Republicans to cave.

It is tremendously wasteful to shut down open-air memorials. But more than that, it’s just cruel.

Seventeen years later, people aren’t manipulated in quite the same fashion. For one thing, the nightly news media don’t get to control the information as easily as they did in 1995. After reports of incongruities about what got shut down and what didn’t exploded on social media, the news stories took a different tone.

Bloomberg News reported on the “seeming randomness” of the closures:

Grocery stores on Army bases in the U.S. are closed. The golf course at Andrews Air Force base is open.

CNN asked the Executive Branch why in the world they’d barricaded the World War II Memorial and received an incoherent reply. Which they published:

“I know that this is an open-air memorial, but we have people on staff who are CPR trained, (and) we want to make sure that we have maintenance crew to take care of any problems. What we’re trying to do is protect this resource for future generations,” said [National Mall and Memorial parks spokeswoman Carol] Johnson.

Again, people were free prior to the shutdown to walk on the sidewalks near the memorial whether or not CPR-trained government workers were nearby or not. The explanation boggled the mind.

The Executive Branch is likely trying to convey a message that Americans can’t live or be happy without keeping the federal government funded at astronomically high levels. But the message being received is that the federal government can be shockingly cruel.

Whose idea was it to needlessly hamper efforts to find missing children?

For instance, the feds shuttered the Amber Alert web site, which posts pictures of missing kids. This is what you saw if you went there on Sunday night:

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Amber Alerts aren’t even federally run. They’re mostly run by the states themselves. It took more time and energy to shutter the site than to just let it keep running. Every other juvenile justice program kept running, including the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Defending Childhood, Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice,, National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, National Gang Center, Project Safe Childhood, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). It was only the well-known Amber Alert site that was redirected to a shuttered site.

When average Americans became skeptical about the need to hide the site, some in the media ran in the opposite-from-skeptical direction and defended the Executive Branch. Huffington Post’s Political Editor and White House Correspondent Sam Stein wrote: “the office of justice programs ran out of funds on Friday so all of the sites they maintain about the work they do went offline.”

Once the White House realized that this was coming off more as cruel and unnecessary than legitimate, guess which website joined the other juvenile justice programs and came back online? (The initial shutdown wasn’t just vindictive but a violation of the department’s own procedures, it turns out.)

Bureaucratic pettiness on display

Some bureaucrats wouldn’t let Americans cast their eyes upon Mount Rushmore, even from a distance. From one report:

Blocking access to trails and programs at South Dakota’s most popular attraction was one thing, but state officials didn’t expect Congress’ budget stalemate to shut down a view of Mount Rushmore.

The National Park Service placed cones along highway viewing areas outside Mount Rushmore this week, barring visitors from pulling over and taking pictures of the famed monument.

This pettiness extended to attempts to shutdown privately-run rival visitor sites such as Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home. And the National Park Service also forcibly closed (and if they have a rationale for this they’ve yet to explain it) the Claude Moore Colonial Farm in McLean, Virginia. It’s a living history museum that shows school kids what life on a farm was like before the Revolutionary War. Unlike other sites that are dependent on the Park Service, the Claude Moore Colonial Farm is fighting back against the NPS and they say they are fighting for their very survival:

The Farm is a completely independent entity, leasing land from the National Park Service but drawing no resources, personnel, and most importantly, currently drawing no money from the NPS or the American people. It funds itself completely through its school, community, and public programs. However, this government shutdown has caused the NPS to shut down this Farm, despite its independence, proximity to extreme security, and privately paid full staff. Without income from school groups, public programs, and public entry, the Farm will not meet its bills and will have to shut down forever.

Again: Both cruel and unnecessary. (More examples of unnecessary closures here.)

Some bureaucrats also tried to shut down the Air Force vs. Navy football game this past weekend. It, too, is privately funded. At some point the bureaucrats realized that the shutdown wasn’t defensible and they let the teams play. Navy beat the Air Force 28-10.

The list goes on and on and on. The feds put 77-year-old Joyce Spencer and 80-year-old husband Ralph out of the home they’ve owned since the 1970s because it sits on federal land. Spencer kept up a good attitude, according to KTNV-TV:

Joyce Spencer said she’s alright in the meantime, staying with nearby family, but the move was a lot to handle as a senior citizen. “I had to be sure and get his walker and his scooter that he has to go in,” Spencer said. “We’re not hurt in any way except it might cost me if I have to go buy more pants.”

The Park Service closed down a fishing fee site in Montana that it hadn’t visited all year long, according to this Billings Gazette report:

“They closed something down that they never monitored all year long,” said Rick Law at the Bighorn Trout Shop. He said the nearby Park Service contact station, where anglers pay a fee to launch their boats at the federal sites, had been empty all summer and he never saw a Park Service employee picking up trash or even enforcing the parking rules. “I could see it if they had people up here working, monitoring and picking up trash, but they’re not,” Law said.

These stories of petty closures are not being written in a climate of general government trust. They are coming out at the same time that citizens hear about tremendous government waste at other agencies. Check out last week’s headlines about the the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service, a small government agency riddled with problems: “Bureaucrats at tiny federal agency FMCS buy legions of luxuries with purchase cards,” “Reckless spending goes straight to the top at FMCS,” “FMCS executives forced whistleblower to retract fraud complaint,” “Federal officials cede power to contractors who write themselves sweetheart deals,” and “Wounded vet blew whistle on FMCS, rewarded with pink slip, harassment.”

It’s not as if Americans imagine that these closures of open-air monuments and Amber Alerts and Navy-Air Force games need to happen. If we could shutter (much less clean up waste, fraud and mismanagement at) the Federal Mediation & Conciliation Service or put a bunch of security guards to keep World War II veterans off of a sidewalk, which one would most Americans choose?

A government for the people? Or people for a government?

Last month an ACLU senior policy analyst wrote that it’s useful to conceive of bureaucratic problems “not as a result of politics or personality, but as an institution, which to the first approximation is best thought of as a mindless, amoral, and self-perpetuating primitive life form.”

He didn’t mean it as an insult, so much as a helpful way of understanding why groups of bureaucrats make cruel and idiotic decisions that they wouldn’t think of making as individuals. He listed five theories:

  • The ideology of the bureaucracy. Max Weber observed that a bureaucrat is ultimately “responsible only for the impartial execution of assigned tasks and must sacrifice his personal judgment if it runs counter to his official duties.” Insofar as the vision of a bureaucracy as a machine is embraced by its participants, they will suppress their wide-ranging human intelligences and limit their judgment and discretion accordingly. Indeed as Weber points out, they are expected to do so.
  • Groupthink. The well-documented human tendencies toward conformism and “groupthink,” which can cause people to give up their critical faculties when faced with a group consensus.
  • Diffusion of responsibility. This is the tendency of people not to tackle a problem when they are surrounded by other people, each of whom assumes somebody else in the crowd will surely address it so they don’t have to.
  • Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy. This brilliant “law” has two parts. First, “in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.” Second, in every organization, it’s the people in the second category who always end up running things, while “those dedicated to the goals the bureaucracy is supposed to accomplish have less and less influence, and sometimes are eliminated entirely.”
  • Abstraction. When we say that most people are “ethical,” what we mean is that they are socialized to behave well to those who surround them—to the concrete human beings they encounter in the flesh. But we humans are generally not good at abstract thought, and it may be that it is the nature of bureaucracies to separate rulers from their victims, so that cruelty and bad policies become remote and abstract, breaking down the ethical training that has been carefully socialized in most modern human beings.

The ACLU policy analyst was thinking specifically of the national security state and its abuses, but you can see how bureaucrats in the Park Service might have fallen victim as well.

Byron York had a question prompted by the particular manner bureaucrats and the Obama Administration were handling the shutdown: “Does the punishing way the Obama administration has run aspects of the shutdown reveal anything about how it will run national health care?”

Similar questions were asked at the time it was revealed that the Internal Revenue Service was specifically targeting people in the Tea Party movement.

Advocates of limited government frequently discuss how inefficient bureaucracies can be. They discuss how government programs frequently fail to achieve their stated aims or make the problems they’re aiming to fix even worse.

But it’s important to remember that even apart from these things, bureaucracies are frequently cruel, punitive, vindictive and petty. Evicting senior citizens is petty. Putting cones up on the highway so that Americans can’t even think of getting a peek at Mount Rushmore is petty. Shutting down privately-run sites is vindictive. Keeping World War II vets from their last chance to see their memorial is reprehensible.

The United States was built on the idea that the government is beholden to its people. Not the other way around. The way the bureaucracy has handled the government slowdown suggests a belief that the bureaucracy is opposed to the people. And if the the bureaucracy is opposed to the people, then it is opposed to freedom itself. Whether it’s NSA, the IRS or the National Park Service, there is a tension between American freedom and the bureaucracy. If nothing else, we can thank the Obama Administration for reminding us of that fact.