Jacob Sullum on the government shutdown:

The saddest scenario envisioned by the Times involves a Cincinnati woman who is driving to Washington, D.C., on Friday with her family and plans to visit the Smithsonian Institution. When she gets there, the Times gravely informs us, she may be greeted by paper signs that say “Closed Due to Government Shutdown.” Tragic as that would be, I have to ask why the hell the government needs to run a set of museums that paying customers are so eager to visit. Ditto the National Zoo and the national parks, which also will close temporarily in the event of a shutdown. If people really value such facilities, they would be willing to pay for private versions of them, whether as customers or as patrons. If they don’t, how can it be right to forcibly take their money and use it for these decidedly nonessential purposes?

There is no doubt in my mind that government transparency is aided and abetted by the maintaining of archives, so I see no contradiction between supporting the Smithsonian and my belief in low taxes. Written documents can tell us a lot about what occurred in the past but so can material culture. That is the difference between history and archaeology. If we agree to preserve the plans of how to build an Apollo rocket capsule, then is it so strange to also preserve the capsule itself? The only quibble is what exactly should be preserved. The Wright Flyer or a fossilized T-rex skull is more relevant and important than an inaugural gown will ever be. Or maybe not. We can argue over criteria.

That said, I don’t have a problem with the Smithsonian charging a modest admission fee to offset some of its costs. But there’s no way user fees could ever cover the expense of curating its massive holdings.

The National Zoo is more problematic. One imagines a likewise biological archive where visitors could experience the indigenous fauna of the 50 states, but in reality there’s not so much as a bison burger in the National Zoo cafeteria. The place is instead a menagerie of pandas and elephants and kangaroos — whatever animals have been dropped on us by foreign dignitaries. It’s a run-down, random mishmash and it should be completely privatized.

As for national parks, battlefields, and so on: I don’t lose sleep over them. If the day ever comes when the most egregious abuse of government is taking our tax money to spend on public parks and libraries, then libertarians have won.

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