With the government shutdown, there has been a lot of talk about nonessential government personnel and nonessential government services. In particular, many people are asking if these people and the services they provide are not essential, then what are we wasting money on them for anyway. The answer, lies, as it so often does, in how to choose to define the term nonessential. For the purposes of shutting down the U.S. government, the definition follows along the vague line of services and personnel that affect the health and safety of citizens. That isn’t the only possible definition, of course. And, even using that definition leave a lot of gray area of interpretation.
To understand just what makes a government service nonessential, it helps to consider something smaller, your own life, for example.
To protect your health and safety, there are some things that you must do without question. Continuing to eat, drink, and sleep is necessary if you are to stay healthy. You do not need to go to the movies to stay healthy and safe.
So far, this is very easy.
However, it gets complicated very quickly. For example, should you still exercise? Exercise does improve your health, and it is safer to be strong and lean. On the other hand, you aren’t going to instantly become less healthy if you stop going to the gym.
What about cleaning your house?
Again, in the beginning, it would be hard to throw that into the essential services category. After all, an unvacuumed carpet is hardly deadly. However, the longer you go without cleaning, the more likely it becomes that the filth building up in your house will attract vermin, grow bacteria or mold, or otherwise begin to affect your health.
This is where the who essential versus nonessential thing breaks down. Many services that the government performs, and the employees who perform them, are not necessarily immediately essential. Just like the many tasks you perform, some of them can be skipped. Others can be put off. But, just because you don’t have to do something immediately, doesn’t mean that you never have to do it again. In other words, things that are nonessential at a specific point in time become very essential over a longer period of time.
It may not be essential to inspect bridges for safety this weekend. However, never inspecting them again would be incompetent. So, does that make the function essential or nonessential? While the passport office being closed for a week or two is just an inconvenience for travelers, never issuing a passport again, means locking every citizen within the borders of the country forever since international travel is not possible without a passport.
So, while it might be an interesting tweet about the size of government, many of the services being deemed nonessential during the shutdown are actually very essential over time. Furthermore, many “extra” services that are provided by the government are provided because we the people demand those services in exchange for the taxes we pay. Just turning them off to save money doesn’t necessarily square up with our desires as a people.
In the end, the question is moot for everyone who is not actually a government worker. The shutdown will end eventually, and both essential and nonessential government services will start back up. The true test of whether something is essential or not comes when we vote based on what we do and do not want.