Federal Failure

As the waters finally begin to recede in devastated New Orleans, complaints about the federal response to Hurricane Katrina and its horrific aftermath continue to rise.

You’d think that “disaster relief” actually were one of the federal powers enumerated in the U.S. Constitution.

A government investigation into the slow federal response has been promised. It almost certainly won’t arrive at the real reason for the federal failure, which is that the federal government is inherently unsuited to providing natural disaster relief.

As the brilliant economist Thomas Sowell explains on pages 132-33 of his aptly titled Basic Economics:

Monopoly is the enemy of efficiency, whether under capitalism or socialism. … Even in a mixed economy, … the government’s activities are typically monopolies, while those in the private marketplace are typically … carried out by rival enterprises.

Thus, when a hurricane, flood, or other natural disaster strikes some part of the United States, emergency aid usually comes both from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and from private insurance companies whose customers’ homes and property have been damaged or destroyed. FEMA has been notoriously slower and less efficient than the private insurance companies. Allstate Insurance cannot afford to be slower in getting money into the hands of its policy-holders than State Farm Insurance is in getting money to the people who hold its policies. Not only would existing customers in the disaster area be likely to switch insurance companies if one dragged its feet … while their neighbors received substantial advances … from a different insurance company, [but also] word of any such difference would spread …, causing millions of people … to switch billions of dollars worth of … business from the less efficient company to the more efficient one. A government agency … faces no such pressure. No matter how much FEMA may be criticized or ridiculed for its failure to get aid to disaster victims in a timely fashion, there is no rival government agency that these people can turn to for the same service.

So, instead, people turn to the government to investigate itself. But the combination of the government’s messiah complex and the culture of dependency virtually guarantee that the investigation won’t conclude that the federal government just isn’t suited to doing everything that people want it to do for them. And that’s a shame. Because it means that more people will suffer.

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12 thoughts on “Federal Failure

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  2. Dear Leslie,

    During the first day (9/12/2005) of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings regarding the nomination of Judge John Roberts to become Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Senator Senator Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said the following to the nominee, according to a transcript by CQ Transcriptions on the New York Times website (registration required):

    “Judge, as you know, there’s a genuine intellectual debate going on in our country today over whether the Constitution is going to continue to expand the protections of the right to privacy, continue to empower the federal government to protect the powerless. . . .

    “Judge, I believe in a Constitution — as our Supreme Court’s first great chief who has been mentioned today, Justice Marshall, said in 1819, and I quote, a Constitution intended to endure for ages to come and consequently to be adapted to the various crises of human affairs.

    “That’s the Constitution I believe in. That’s the way I think we should look at the Constitution.

    “At its core, the Constitution envisions ever-increasing protections for human liberty and dignity for all its citizens and a national government empowered — empowered — to deal with these unanticipated crises.

    “Judge, herein lies, in my view, the crux or the intellectual debate I referred to at the outset: whether we will have an ever- increasing protection for human dignity and human liberty or whether those protections will be diminished, as suggested by many in their reading of the Constitution that says there are no unenumerated rights — there is a very narrow reading of the Constitution. . . .

    “In every step we’ve had to struggle against those who saw the Constitution as frozen in time, Judge, but time and again we’ve overcome and the Constitution has remained relevant and dynamic, thanks to the proper interpretation, in my view, of the ennobling phrases purposely placed in what I refer to as our civic bible, the Constitution.

    “And once again, when it should be even more obvious to all Americans we need increased protections for liberty as we look around the world and we see thousands of people persecuted because of their faith, women unable to show their faces in public, children maimed and killed for no other reason than they were born the wrong tribe; and once again, when it should be obvious we need a more energetic national government to deal with the challenges of the new millennium — terrorism, the spread of weapons of mass destruction, pandemic disease, religious intolerance — once again our journey of progress is under attack.

    “And it’s coming from, in my view, the right. There are judges, scholars and opinion leaders who belong to this group of people, who are good, honorable and patriotic Americans. They believe the Constitution provides no protection against government intrusion into highly personal decisions like the Schiavo case, decisions about birth, about marriage, about family, about religion.

    “There are those who would slash the power of our national government, fragmenting it among the states in a new reading of the 10th and 11th amendment.

    “Incredibly, some even argue, as you well know — people won’t believe this — but some are arguing today, in this constitutional exile group, who argue that the national government has no power to deal with what’s going on in the Gulf at this moment.

    “Judge, I don’t believe the Constitution — I don’t believe in a constitution where individuals could, for very long, have accomplished what we did had we read it in such a narrow way.

    “Like the founders, I believe our Constitution is as big and as grand and as great as its people. Our constitutional journey did not stop with women being barred from being lawyers, with 10-year-olds working in coal mines or black kids forced in different schools than white kids just because the Constitution — in the Constitution, nowhere does it mention sex discrimination, child labor, segregation. It doesn’t mention it.

    “Our constitutional journey did not stop then and it must not stop now, Judge. . . .

    “And, Judge, I need to know whether you will be a justice who believes that the constitutional journey must continue to speak to these consequential decisions or that we’ve gone far enough in protecting against government intrusion into our autonomy into the most personal decisions we make.

    “Judge, that’s why this is a critical moment. There are elected officials in this government, such as Mr. DeLay — a fine, honorable, patriotic man — and others who have been unsuccessful at implementing their agenda in the elected branches. So they have now poured their energy — as the left would, if it were different — and now poured their energies and resources into trying to change the court’s view of the Constitution.

    “And now they have a once in a lifetime opportunity, the filling of two Supreme Court vacancies, one of which is the chief and the other is for associate justice — the first time in 75 years.

    “Judge, I believe with every fiber in my being that their view of the Constitution and where the country should be taken would be disaster for our people.

    “Like most Americans, I believe the Constitution recognizes a general right to privacy.

    “I believe a woman’s right to be nationally and vigorously protected exists.

    “I believe that the federal government must act as a shield to protect the powerless against the economic interests of this country.

    “And I believe the federal government should stamp out discrimination wherever — wherever — it occurs.

    “And I believe the Constitution inspires and empowers us to achieve these great goals.”

    Leslie, sorry for the long quote, but do you have any comments about what Sen. Biden said about the Constitution and the role of the federal government?

    Bryan Atchison

  3. Leslie, you are fantastic. How on earth could someone as sensible as you have worked for an agency that harasses private enterprise?

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