Hurricane Katrina, or What Government Is For

This is a rerun of a piece I wrote about two years ago. I’m repeating it because now, in this Presidential election, it seems particularly pertinent.

When the levees broke
So I’m watching When the Levees Broke, the Spike Lee HBO documentary on Hurricane Katrina (which you all absolutely have to see, by the way), and what with that and the one-year anniversary, it seemed like a good time to say something I’ve been wanting to say for a while, about what government is — or what it should be, anyway — and about people who think government is a bad idea.

Here’s what I think government is. Or rather, here’s what I think government should be, and what it actually is at least some of the time. I think government is/should be the structure with which a society pools some of its resources for projects and services that benefit that society, but are too big to be handled privately by individuals or small groups. And it is/should be the structure a society uses to decide how those pooled resources should be used.

Think roads. Sewers. Parks. Fire departments. Public health services. Law enforcement, even. God knows I have mixed feelings about law enforcement as it actually exists in our society — but as Ingrid pointed out recently, when there’s a Ted Bundy on the streets, you want there to be people whose job it is to catch them. It’s pretty much spelled out in the Preamble to the Constitution, actually: “…to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity…”

And think emergency services. For fuck’s sweet sake, think emergency services.

Except we have a government — a federal government, anyway — that’s run by people who think government is a bad idea. We have a government run by people who think government should always be as small as possible, that taxes should always be as low as possible, that government is at best a necessary evil. (Or who say that’s what they think, anyway. I think they’re big fuckin’ hypocrites, but that’s a different rant.)

And when you see what happened a year ago in New Orleans, you see why government run by people who think government is a bad idea is a criminally bad idea.

Because when you think about what government is — or what it should be — you realize that people who think government is a bad idea are essentially opposed to the idea of pooling resources. To oppose the very idea of government, to think of it as at best a necessary evil, is to believe in the philosophy of “Every man for himself.” It is to believe in the philosophy of “Screw you, Jack, I’ve got mine.” It is to believe that sharing is bad. It is to believe in the atomization of society, the breakdown of social responsibility into smaller and smaller units. To believe that government is a bad idea is to believe that society itself is a bad idea.

George w. bush
It feels freaky to be defending the idea of government when I’m watching a documentary about its callous incompetence, its inhuman detachment, its colossal screw-up on every level. And it feels ultra-freaky to be defending the idea of government when we’re suffering through what may well go down as the worst Presidential administration in history. But in a way, that’s my point. I think that government should be run by people who think government is a good idea. People who think government is a good idea are looking for ways to make it run better. People who think government is a bad idea are cynically looking for ways they can use it to enrich themselves and their buddies.

The big devil’s advocate question, of course, is why all those big social projects — roads, sewers, parks, fire departments, public health, law enforcement, etc. — can’t be handled privately, by business or charity? That brings me to the second part of my “what government should be” theory — namely, the structure a society uses to decide how its pooled resources should be used. The problem with big social projects being handled by the private sector is accountability. I want to have my roads maintained, my fires put out, my immunizations delivered — and my emergency services provided — by people I can vote for, and vote against. And I don’t want them handled by people whose top priority is not roads or fires or immunizations or emergency services, but profit. (If you want a top-notch example of why social services shouldn’t be delivered by the private sector, watch the part of the Spike Lee Katrina documentary that talks about how the insurance companies completely shafted Katrina victims.)

Form 1040
Are there problems with government? Fuck, yes. Massive ones. It needs to be fixed, and pronto. But it needs to be fixed by people who believe in it. So the next time someone’s running for office by promising to reduce government and cut taxes, think about whether that’s what you really want from your people in office. Because if there’s a better way for a society to pool its resources and decide how those resources should be used than a democratically elected government, I can’t think of it.


  1. says

    “But like all politicians, conservatives, once in office, find themselves under constant pressure from constituents to use government to improve their lives. This puts conservatives in the awkward position of managing government agencies whose missions–indeed, whose very existence–they believe to be illegitimate. Contemporary conservatism is a walking contradiction. Unable to shrink government but unwilling to improve it, conservatives attempt to split the difference, expanding government for political gain, but always in ways that validate their disregard for the very thing they are expanding. The end result is not just bigger government, but more incompetent government.”
    — Alan Wolfe, “Why Conervatives Can’t Govern”

  2. says

    Wolfe also cites FEMA to support his thesis:

    True to a long tradition of disinterested public management, Clinton, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew, appointed James Lee Witt to head FEMA. Witt refocused FEMA away from civil-defense efforts to increasingly predictable national disasters, fought for greater federal funding, achieved cabinet status for his agency, and worked closely with state and local officials. For all the efforts by Republicans to attack their enemies, no one has ever put a dent in Witt’s reputation. Government under him was as good as government gets.
    Upon assuming office, George W. Bush turned to former Texas campaign aide Joe Allbaugh to run FEMA and then shifted it into the new Department of Homeland Security (whose creation he had opposed). Allbaugh, and his hand-picked successor Michael Brown, like so many Bush appointees, were afflicted with what we might call “learned incompetence.” They did not fail merely out of ignorance and inexperience. Their ineptness, rather, was active rather than passive, the end result of a deliberate determination to prove that the federal government simply should not be in the business of disaster management. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management,” Allbaugh had testified before a Senate appropriations subcommittee in May, 2001. “Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level.” There was the conservative dilemma in a nutshell: a man put in charge of a mission in which he did not believe.
    Long before Katrina destroyed New Orleans, Allbaugh and Brown were busy destroying FEMA: privatizing many of the agency’s programs, shifting attention away from disaster management, and shedding no tears as scores of agency staff left in dismay. Human beings cannot prevent natural disasters, but they can prevent man-made ones. Not the Bush administration. Its ideological hostility toward government all but guaranteed that the physical damage inflicted by a hurricane would be exacerbated by the human damage caused by incompetence.

  3. says

    The big devil’s advocate question, of course, is why all those big social projects — roads, sewers, parks, fire departments, public health, law enforcement, etc. — can’t be handled privately, by business or charity?
    Because of the free rider problem – in most cases you can’t extend these benefits only to those who will pay for them, so you have to just provide them and make people pay, and that’s what Government is.
    There’s also the point that in the case of a benefit like sewage, I want it to be mandatory because it’s in my interests that my neighbour have it.

  4. says

    Because of the free rider problem – in most cases you can’t extend these benefits only to those who will pay for them

    Not just the free rider problem, but because of lack of sanitation, disease control, law enforcement, and fire prevention are public menaces.
    Though Libertarians may hate it, we cannot give them the option of opting out of paying for and receiving fire department service, because fires spread!

  5. David Harmon says

    I can’t add much here, except Amen! (And the last two years have only underlined your points.)

  6. says

    The irony is that the “vote for me because government is bad” crowd are people who would be horrified at the idea of hippies or “elitist professors” running corporations. Or an atheist running a church.

  7. William the Coroner says

    The problem isn’t just government, it is that some functions of government is the only game in town. Only the State Department can issue passports. Only the DMV can issue drivers liscences. The Post Office got markedly better when UPS and FedEx gave them a run for their money. Competition is a marked way to improve things. That and increasing the consequences for failure. The bank bailout, IMHO, should never have occurred. If it HAD to have occured, the people who fucked up should have been taken out, stood up against the wall, and shot.

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