As this is being written, parts of the federal government have been shut down. Some federal workers have been furloughed—sent home without pay and forbidden from doing work. Others, like TSA agents, are being compelled to work without pay. As would be suspected, the shutdown is hurting those who are not getting paid—there has not been a shutdown of bills and expenses. While some federal workers are well paid, most live from paycheck to paycheck (like most Americans) and have little in the way of financial reserves. Because of this, federal workers are turning to food banks and some are seeking unemployment benefits (which can be problematic, since the unpaid are still employed). In addition to the impact on the unpaid workers, there are the indirect impacts on those who provide goods and services to these workers. After all, people who are not getting paid will not be doing much spending.
In addition to the financial impacts, there are many other harms. One example is the harm being done to the national parks. There are also the harms suffered by those who need the federal services, including businesses that also employ people. There are also the long-term harms of the shutdown. While one could write almost endlessly of the harms of the shutdown, it suffices to say that it is extremely harmful and thus something that should be avoided.
In terms of why this shutdown is occurring, Trump has decided that after two years of Republican rule it is now time to play hardball for the wall: he has shut down the government until he either gets what he wants, or congress somehow forces him to re-open the government. Trump’s supporters will tend to take a different view of the matter: congress, specifically the Democrats, are to blame because they refuse to provide the funds he wants for his wall.
Debating about who is to blame is largely a fruitless endeavor: those who oppose Trump will blame him while his loyal supporters will blame the Democrats. Minds will generally not be changed by evidence or reasons. That said, it can honestly be claimed that the shutdown requires two to tango: if the Democrats give him what he wants, he would presumably end the shutdown and if Trump decided to end the shutdown, then it would end. As such, either side could end the shutdown now, if only they would give in to the other side. From a moral standpoint, they thus each have some blame. However, the blame need not be equal.
After all, to refuse to give in on something because someone else will hurt others need not be the wrong thing to do. From a utilitarian standpoint, giving in would be wrong if it created more harm than refusing to give in. This utilitarian calculation can consider more than just the immediate factors—for example, it should also include that yielding to hostage taking tactics will encourage the use of that tactic in the future. As noted above, Trump’s supporters would tend to argue that the wall is worth the harm being done (and that the Democrats are to blame). In contrast, those who do not support Trump’s wall take the opposite view. As such, this matter is not worth arguing—no minds will be changed. Instead, I will focus on the general use of a shutdown as a tool, be it by Republicans or Democrats.
The ethics of the shutdown comes down to two basic moral concerns. The first is whether it is morally acceptable to hurt innocent people to get what you want. The second is whether it is morally acceptable to refuse to give someone what they want when they threaten to harm the innocent.
Looked at from a utilitarian standpoint, the matter is to be settled by weighing the negative value (harms) generated using a shutdown against the positive value (benefits). The positive value can include preventing harms. In general, using a shutdown would be morally acceptable if doing so prevented a greater harm—since shutdowns are always harmful. What must also be considered is whether there is an alternative to the shutdown. To use an analogy, if someone proposed using a risky surgery to treat an illness, to not consider alternatives would be morally irresponsible. In the case of the shutdown, there are clearly alternatives. One is, of course, to use the normal political process of negotiation and for each side to agree that they will not use the shutdown as a political tool because of the harm it would inflict.
One obvious practical problem is that the shutdown is perceived as a useful, albeit risky, political tool. The side pushing a shutdown to get what they want think that it will probably work for them; the other side thinks that they will prevent the other side from winning. Both sides also tend to think that they can score political points. In the current shutdown, Trump presumably hopes that the Democrats will be hurt, and the Democrats presumably hope to gain points to use in 2020. Using the shutdown as a tool seems to require ignoring or not caring about the harm being inflicted on the American people. After all, while politicians can lose political points or not get what they want, they are generally not harmed during the shutdown itself—they still get paid. This willingness to use people as pawns is morally problematic—after all, Locke argued that the purpose of the state is the good of the people.
That said, political, economic and military calculations always involve harming pawns—so the shutdown could thus be seen any other move in the political game. This can be countered by pointing out the method need not be used, and the harm inflicted is not necessary—there are so many other options to reaching a solution. As such, the shutdown would seem to be an unethical political tool. Unfortunately, just as it takes two to shutdown, it also takes two to avoid a shutdown: both parties would need to agree to not use this tool. While moral arguments presumably have little impact on professional politicians, if this shutdown proves to disappoint both sides, then it is less likely to be used in the future. But, if one side wins, then the lesson will be that it is a useful tool and Americans can expect more suffering in the future—unless they are willing to take action to prevent it.