So… You Don’t Want Big Government?

The news this past week has been focused – with good reason – on Hurricane Sandy. As it passed through, we saw the scenes of devastation from New Jersey and New York City. A huge area has been impacted, and the total impact – and tallying the cost of damages – will take some time to be seen. In overall terms, this may turn out to be one of the – if not the – most expensive natural disasters in this country’s history. All of which has led to discussions on politics – and the role of government.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Energetic governors and mayors are best equipped to handle disaster relief because they know their cities and neighborhoods far better than the feds ever will, and they know their citizens will hold them accountable. The feds can help with money and perhaps expertise.

The larger liberal fallacy here is that effective government requires bigger government. Americans expect a government, at whatever level, to do its core functions well. But the bigger and more costly the government, the more likely it is to do more things poorly.

I’ve seen this same argument from a number of right-wing publications and blogs.  It’s flogging a strawman.  But let’s remind the Republicans (although I’m sure they’d rather not be) of … Hurricane Katrina.  Remember just how “well equipped” New Orleans and Louisiana were?  They weren’t.  “Energetic” is meaningless when it comes to large scale disasters.   That’s a lesson we apparently have to keep learning:

Coolidge’s ideology was put to the test in April 1927, when the Mississippi River overflowed its banks.

…The day after the levee collapsed, Coolidge held a meeting of his Cabinet. He chose Herbert Hoover, his commerce secretary, to head up a rescue and relief effort. Hoover was Coolidge’s stylistic opposite: Where the president liked to delegate work and didn’t care for the minutiae of policy, Hoover was a workaholic, technocrat, hands-on manager, and—as a Stanford-trained engineer who had led food-relief efforts for Europe after World War I—an obvious choice for the job.

Hoover threw himself into his task, but the funds he secured were insufficient. Private philanthropy simply came up short. Public debate swirled around a strong response from Washington—in both dollars and symbolism. Coolidge resisted both. Governors, senators, and mayors asked him to visit the flood zone.

The US News & World Report weighs in on the role of “big government”

This is your government at work. And with the battle over the size and role of government central to the election campaigns, it’s worthwhile to be reminded of what our government does for us.

This is not to say that government does everything better, or that more layers of bureaucracy are preferable. But there are some things that only government can do, irrespective of the goodwill of private citizens or even the private sector.

That last sentence is the lesson that reality keeps teaching the ideologically blinkered.  There is indeed a role for “big government,” particularly when a multi-state disaster hits.   One only has to look at how fast every Republican governor gets on the phone to Washington when they’re faced with a major disaster.   It’s not just “money” or “maybe expertise” that’s needed in those instances.  There’s a need for resources above and beyond that, and only the federal government has that capability.  It doesn’t matter how “energetic” a given mayor or governor is,  they don’t have the resources to handle it. Sometimes, they’re not all that energetic:

We find it inconceivable that Gov. Mitt Romney claims the state can do nothing to help those residents still struggling to rebuild homes and businesses after the May flood. Massachusetts is sitting on millions in unspent emergency funds from Hurricane Katrina and more than $1 billion in cash reserves, yet Romney has failed to even respond to the Lowell delegation’s requests to discuss additional aid for victims. The governor’s spokesman — since Romney can’t be bothered to comment now that the photo opportunities have dried up even though some residents’ basements haven’t — said the state will not consider spending its own money for flood victims until it’s clear how much cash the federal government will give.

That’s the difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Democrats think that not only should FEMA exist, it should be competent.  Republicans don’t want it at all, and are perfectly happy to put anyone needing a patronage job into the agency, competence be damned.  Given their disdain for “big government,” FEMA wasn’t competent when they were in charge.

The New York Times :

The agency was put back in working order by President Obama, but ideology still blinds Republicans to its value. Many don’t like the idea of free aid for poor people, or they think people should pay for their bad decisions, which this week includes living on the East Coast.

…really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.

It’s not just disaster aid that “big government” was doing here.  It was helping prepare for those disasters, and it was providing advance warning of this storm.  It’s not private industry which has a network of satellites watching the weather, it’s not a state or local governments that have hurricane watchers and weather stations.  It’s the federal government.    The reason the local governments were able to warn their citizens and make preparations for this storm before it hit was because of the information the federal government provided.

The lesson the Right doesn’t seem to want to learn – and hence their beating of strawmen – is that sometimes to be effective, you need to be “big.”   It’s something that reality has been teaching us for a long time, but they keep forgetting it – until they need it.  The truly sad thing is that they’d be the first to scream if they got their way, and were told “You’re on your own.”

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “So… You Don’t Want Big Government?

  1. Jay

    Shows that some are ready to repeat history even if the results the other time was a disaster.

  2. Excellent post. I admire your willingness to read the Wall Street Journal. I gave up on it years ago. More jobs have been lost in the public sector than the private sector during this recession. And the decline in public sector jobs is what’s keeping the economy weak. I can never, ever figure out what anyone means when they want a smaller government. Have you ever heard any details on that? I haven’t. Big IS more effective and efficient, especially when issues and disasters affect many states. States have shown, time and time again, that they don’t include enough in their budgets for preparation. State legislators are even more inclined to think in immediate terms than federal ones. What most Republicans are actually dismissive of are the regulations that they’d love to bypass, which would ultimately make life less certain, less beneficial and less safe for each state’s citizens. “I hate big government” is a meme and a very silly, useless one at that.

    • What I find amusing is that while they’ll talk about the “inefficiency” of big government, they’ll turn right around and talk about how it’s really “efficient” for companies to merge and become behemoths. :roll:

      What they also ignore is that almost all states and localities are required to balance their budgets. They don’t have the mechanisms in place to “run a deficit,” so a disaster like this, hitting the states and localities with several billion dollars of damage means that almost everything else in their government has to shut down to fund it.

      • Well said, again. What room is there in their platform for small business? According to the Bain group and others like them, big is better. The other thing is that FEMA was the bureaucratic, inefficient mess during the Bush administration and under President Obama a lot of red tape and inefficiencies were addressed.

  3. Vic78

    When are people going to get tired of the GOP? Shrinking the government is a stupid idea right now. It’s not really sensible to screw oneself when the resources are there. You have to love the jerkoffs that say certain precautions cost too much. They have tied our hands with their stupidity.