Perverse Incentives: Government Shutdown Edition

2013-10-04 ParksShutdownAP

A friend on Facebook posted this quote from Thomas Sowell:

Back in my teaching days, one of the things I liked to ask the class to consider was this: Imagine a government agency with only two tasks: (1) building statues of Benedict Arnold and (2) providing life-saving medications to children. If this agency’s budget were cut, what would it do?

The answer, of course, is that it would cut back on the medications for children. Why? Because that would be what was most likely to get the budget cuts restored. If they cut back on building statues of Benedict Arnold, people might ask why they were building statues of Benedict Arnold in the first place.

He didn’t specify, but he didn’t have to: he’s talking about the political efforts to make the government shut down as painful as possible in order to score points for Democrats. Look: I can’t get all outraged about politicians playing politics. It’s what they do, and we’d be kidding ourselves to think otherwise. But I do think it’s important to try and keep a level head and track what’s really going on.

And here’s the story: in prior government shut downs the parks and memorial services have not been forcibly barred against visitors. Now? They are. The Obama administration is spending more money than would be spent on regular operations to add additional law enforcement and barricades to do things like preventing World War II vets from visiting their own memorial in the hopes that everyone will blame the Republicans. Well: the Republicans sure helped the shutdown along. But during Clinton-era shutdowns the Democratic President didn’t feel the need to spend supposedly non-existent federal dollars to prevent World War II vets from, for example, continuing to give tours at Pearl Harbor. (Daily Caller

Monuments were "closed" during prior shutdowns but, as you can see, the Feds didn't spend time erecting barricades and sending armed guards to keep people out.
Monuments were “closed” during prior shutdowns but, as you can see, the Feds didn’t spend time erecting barricades and sending armed guards to keep people out.

What’s more, the Obama Administration is currently trying to shut down even private parks, just to make sure everyone is as outraged as possible. (Breitbart) This is standard operating procedure for the Obama Administration, which deliberately worked to try and make the sequester painful once it went into effect for much the same reasons. (Washington Times)

The "keep people out" mentality is especially ridiculous when applied to wilderness. Does the federal government really believe that the Earth is a government facility? Think about that one for a minute...
The “keep people out” mentality is especially ridiculous when applied to wilderness. Does the federal government really believe that the Earth is a government facility? Think about that one for a minute…

Again: I don’t think there’s anything particularly pernicious about Obama or Democrats. In my mind, I’m just documenting one more sad step in the sorry state of current American politics. This isn’t really anything more than humans responding to incentives. If someone’s power and prestige hinge on the power of the organization they run, then that’s the lens through which they see the world. It isn’t partisan, and it isn’t new. (See: Washington Monument Syndrome.)

I do think it has relevance, however. In the short run, of course, it’s important to try and keep track of the endless partisan spin even if both parties engage in it. In the long run, however, this is actually a stark example of a central tenet of classical liberalism. Don’t trust the government, because they don’t have your best interests at heart. The folks who run a government agency depend on their budget for status and prestige. They don’t actually depend on your welfare, directly. They wills sacrifice the one to protect the other.

And they will do it with a smile if they can try and tell you and themselves that it is only for the greater good.

3 thoughts on “Perverse Incentives: Government Shutdown Edition”

  1. If you will allow me to be cynical for a minute… while I appreciate the citation rather than assertion that the administration is trying to close non-NPS sites, I don’t actually see any proof on that Obama personally (as the article implies) or anybody directly tied to the presidential administration was responsible for “sen[ding] the NPS to the Virginia park without prior notification upsetting an event that was underway and forcibly removing everyone from the premises.” Of course, both sides are taking the opportunity to play indignant that the NPS is shut down at all, including harassing NPS rangers for doing what they’ve been told to do. Which is to say, given the premise of perverse incentives, either side could stand to benefit from it, and given biased reporting it would just be a race to find somebody to show up on the news accusing the appropriate target. I’m not saying the article is wrong, I’m just saying it offers no proof that it is not wrong either, and in light of remembering to keep cognizant of partisan spin from both sides, one should be equally aware of it on a “conservative news and opinion site.”

    (As an aside, I just find it absurd that it’s even possible to close public land, even though I’m aware of the cognitive dissonance with respect to all the times that it makes sense to close or limit access to what is technically public land. Fortunately, most of the national park/national forest areas I visit are not accessed via a manned ranger station, so it has little practical impact on me.)

  2. Sorry, but this is not a situation where both sides are equally guilty. The President, not Congress, is charged with taking “Care that the Laws be faithfully executed”. So whether or not the President is himself giving orders to the Park Service, he is ultimately responsible for what the Park Service actually does. We can argue all day about whether a shutdown is an appropriate measure, but when it comes to the conduct of the Federal government — during a shutdown or at any other time — only the President can take the blame or the credit. Considering that this childish tantrum began in March with the closing of White House tours (due to the then-catastrophic-world-ending Sequestration crisis that never actually ended), I don’t think our President can credibly disavow knowledge of this phenomenon.

  3. I won’t go so far as to assert positively that Obama knows about this or that specific issue, but that’s just because I think it’s kind of a silly debate. Presidents and the people who work for them are smart. Plausible deniability is a reflex, and there’s no point in trying to cut through that shield.

    But I do think the main point is right: as head of the executive office this is President Obama’s watch. If he didn’t know about it before, it’s his job to know–and to act or not act–now.

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