10 September 2005

Political philosophy and Katrina

There's an interesting Katrina op-ed in today's New York Times. David Brooks argues that...
Katrina was the most anticipated natural disaster in American history, and still government managed to fail at every level.

For the brutal fact is, government tends toward bureaucracy, which means elaborate paper flow but ineffective action. Government depends on planning, but planners can never really anticipate the inevitable complexity of events. And American government is inevitably divided and power is inevitably devolved.

For example, the Army Corps of Engineers had plenty of money (Louisiana received more than any other state), but that spending was carved up into little pork barrel projects. There were ample troops nearby to maintain order, but they were divided between federal and state authorities and constrained by regulations.

This preparedness plan is government as it really is. It reminds us that canning Michael Brown or appointing some tough response czar will not change the endemic failures at the heart of this institutional collapse.

So of course we need limited but energetic government. But liberals who think this disaster is going to set off a progressive revival need to explain how a comprehensive governmental failure is going to restore America's faith in big government.

I disagree wholeheartedly with the opinion expressed here, but it does clearly illustrate an important point that will need to be considered carefully over the coming months: solving the problems in our disaster response system that Katrina has shown us is a question that has some real political implications. I'm not talking about the kind of narrow-minded partisan garbage that has characterized far too much of recent politics. What I'm talking about is a real difference of opinion between differing political philosophies.

One perspective is shown by people like Brooks, who are strong believers in the traditional conservative philosophy of small government. These people believe that the primary responsibility for dealing with disasters rests at the local level, and that the federal role should be to support the locals in situations where the need is great enough. If I have misrepresented this view, I apologize - it is not one I share, and I may have misinterpreted it somewhat.

Another perspective, which I favor, is that Katrina illustrates a need for larger, not smaller, federal responsibility in disaster incidents. The situation in New Orleans seems to me to demonstrate that disasters above a certain size rapidly overwhelm the resources of local officials. This is entirely reasonable. City governments are designed to have the resources to run a city. Evacuation of an entire city, particularly in a short period of time, will require an enormous amount of effort, preparation, and planning, and enormous numbers of law enforcement and other emergency responders to carry out. Expecting every city to be able to do that alone is not reasonable. Early and extensive federal assistance will be the simplest way to accomplish that.

Over the months to come, we will need to decide, as a nation, what path to take. It is far from certain which will be chosen, although it is certain that we cannot continue along the aimless path we have been following. It is also certain that this question will be best resolved by honest and open discussion, not the all-too-common mudslinging.
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