Thomas Sowell used to ask his students to imagine a government bureaucracy that had two functions. One function was to provide medicine to sick children, and the other function was to construct statues of Benedict Arnold. He would then ask his students that if the bureaucracy suffered budget cuts, which function would the bureau stop funding?
The intuitive answer to those of us who are not bureaucrats is to cut the funding to Benedict Arnold statues, of course. One might even ask why we are funding statues in honor of a traitor to begin with? But, Sowell would tell his students, the bureaucracy would actually be more inclined to cut funding to the medicine to sick children.
Bureaucrats and politicians, like anybody else, are self-interested individuals, and their interests are to enjoy a bureaucracy with as large a tax-payer-funded budget as possible. When they are faced with budget cuts, it makes no sense to cut funding from programs that the vast majority of taxpayers wouldn’t care to fund in the first place. There would be no outcry. But by cutting funds in an area that creates real pain for certain people within the population — say, sick children or members of the military — the public will predictably erupt with outrage, demanding that the original budget be reinstated (or even increased!) so people don’t suffer.
With President Trump’s demands for tax-payer funds allocated to his border wall, his reaction was to threaten a government shutdown. This tactic seems to be an increasingly popular tactic for politicians who want support for ever-increasing budgets and higher taxes. The last so-called “shut down” only took place five years ago under Barack Obama, and it seems many people have already forgotten the political theater that accompanied it. “Shutting down” the government apparently meant paying government employees to set up traffic cones around monuments and abstaining from making Twitter updates, among other things.