When the local Department of Agriculture office closed earlier this month because of the federal budget impasse, the Allen County Soil and Water Conservation District – which was also located at 3718 New Vision Drive – could have closed, too.
Instead, the agency – which receives federal grants but also about $130,000 per year from the county budget – moved across the parking lot, its county-funded employees using cell phones as a substitute for the suddenly useless office system. When the National Park Services erected barricades to keep visitors from the World War II memorial in Washington, D.C., veterans and supportive politicians simply moved them out of the way, eventually depositing a few in front of the White House.
And when a computer glitch caused a temporary malfunction in electronic food- stamp debit cards Saturday, shelves in at least two Massachusetts Wal-Marts were cleaned out by panic-driven shoppers allowed to make purchases even though their cards couldn't verify their spending ability.
Ingenuity. Defiance. Possible fraud driven by desperation or indifference. But of the three distinct responses to government impotence or incompetence, only the first was unquestionably praiseworthy. The wisdom and morality of the second depends largely on the circumstances, while the last example is simultaneously indefensible and frightening precisely because it so clearly illustrates what is at stake in the pitched battle between those who want to curb government's appetite for our money and those who consider bureaucratic gluttony a virtue.
“In the first few days (after the office closed), some of us operated out of coffee shops or from home,” explained Greg Lake, who heads the county office that provides a variety of services designed to safeguard soil and water quality. Eventually, however, the manager of the north-side office park in which the district had operated made a vacant suite available for $15 per day.
“We're functioning pretty well, but we can't get to our regular e-mail, and people who want to contact us (on the regular phone system) can't,” said Lake. “I hope it's over soon.”
But while Lake and his small staff are to be commended for doing their jobs in difficult circumstances, such alternatives are not always available. There's only one national World War II memorial, after all, and when the federal government tried to bar its use in an apparent attempt to make a political point, veterans and their political allies – including some tea party leaders – took matters into their own hands. If the Nazis couldn't stop them, what chance did a few barricades have?
But to what degree does the government's cynical attempt to impose selective pain justify civil disobedience? It's one thing for veterans to visit a monument; but should Americans also demand unfettered access to all public lands, buildings and facilities regardless of the cost involved?
As for the food-stamp glitch, which was not directly related to the federal
shutdown and affected people in 17 states, it is proper both to question the reliability of a system that now has about 48 million beneficiaries and spends about $75 billion per year – up 70 percent since 2008. But it is perhaps even more proper to point out the near-anarchy that resulted from even a momentary shut down. One shopper in Louisiana rang up a bill of $700 despite having just 49 cents left on her card.
Some would perhaps suggest the chaos demonstrated the pain that could be inflicted by a prolonged government shutdown. But surely the panicked recipients' apparent inability to tap alternatives such as food banks, family, friends and their own stockpiles, even on a short-term basis, indicates the degree to which ingenuity and self-reliance have become endangered species.
The degree of Americans' dependence on the federal government, by all accounts, has never been greater. Some politicians, unfortunately, seem to like it that way. All of which makes taming the beast more painful and politically difficult than ever before – and more necessary.