Michael Tanner

The federal government has shut down. And, as of this writing, no one knows exactly when it will reopen.

As we approached the fateful moment, fear gripped the Capitol in a way unseen since … well, the dreaded sequester back in March. Cable news networks solemnly counted down the hours until midnight. Newscasters spoke in sepulchral tones about the coming “crisis,” “disaster,” and “catastrophe.” Senate majority leader Harry Reid warned that “the fate of our country” was at stake. Really? The fate of the country?

I will leave it to others to debate the legislative tactics involved. Republican insistence on changes to Obamacare in the face of Democratic intransigence provides plenty of opportunity to play the blame game. A much bigger question — and one more important to the future of this country in the long run — is how we got to the point where a temporary suspension of some government services is seen as the end of civilization as we know it.

Bear in mind that most essential government services (and many that are not) will continue to function as usual. This includes not only the primary responsibilities of government, such as defense and homeland security, but things like air-traffic control, health care at Veterans Affairs hospitals, law enforcement, food-safety inspections, nuclear security, and so on. Medicare and Social Security checks will still go out, and most other government welfare benefits will continue as well. Roughly 80 percent of federal workers will continue to go to work.

Moreover, it’s not as if this hasn’t happened before. In fact, between 1977 and 1996, there were 17 government shutdowns, ranging from 1 to 21 days. Yet somehow the Republic survived.

Still, there is no doubt that a government shutdown will cause widespread pain and could even harm the economy. Why?

The Founding Fathers intended the federal government to have a minimal impact on our lives. As Thomas Jefferson said in his inaugural address, “a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement … This is the sum of good government.” One has trouble imagining Jefferson quivering in terror at the prospect that the federal government might cut back for a few days.

Today, however, the federal government has grown into a leviathan that affects nearly every aspect of our lives. As my Cato colleague Chris Edwards has noted, “The problem isn’t the GOP taking the budget ‘hostage’ to repeal Obamacare, it is the government taking hostage far too much of the American economy.”

Michael Tanner

Michael D. Tanner is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, heading research into a variety of domestic policies with particular emphasis on health care reform, welfare policy, and Social Security. His most recent white paper, "Bad Medicine: A Guide to the Real Costs and Consequences of the New Health Care Law," provides a detailed examination of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and what it means to taxpayers, workers, physicians, and patients.