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Dancing to the Disaster Waltz
Ben Franklin once jokingly recommended that politicians quickly form a new government before everybody noticed there was no need for one. Unfortunately, modern Americans don’t get much chance to notice how truly useless a Senator is. Politicians have us dancing so hard to the political waltz we can’t imagine life without the music. It goes like this: Create a problem, fail to solve it, demand more power to do it right. Then repeat. ONE two three. ONE two three.
In the last hundred years the band has hardly taken a break. Government-spawned ills feed and grow on official failures to cure them. The war on drugs has a dance hall all its own. But the band is playing on every street corner. Public “education,” health care, agriculture, airport security… government meddling routinely creates more problems than it solves.
But because each program also produces a constituency of beneficiaries, the failures are never allowed to fail. Instead failure is rewarded with more money, a larger staff… a bigger band. Problems get worse but the band plays louder. ONE two three, ONE two three.
In recent years government meddling has expanded dramatically into disaster relief, which is more like a rave than a waltz. Handing out other people’s money after a natural disaster is a powerful vote getter and has the added advantage of attracting much less scrutiny than the usual pork barrel projects. Disaster relief spreads the swag and converts human misery to political capital with little accounting for cost or effectiveness.
A New York Times article by economist Alan Krueger noted that in the election year 2004 the number of declared disasters increased more than 20% over 2003. In hotly contested states the number of officially declared disasters more than doubled. Tax dollars and those borrowed from your children reward well-connected contractors and buy votes for incumbents. The increase in disaster relief under Clinton in the 90’s was similar and similarly targeted.
Fortunately, politicians can’t create natural disasters like they do other problems or surely we would have many more. Instead they must settle for simply making them worse by subsidizing risks in vulnerable areas.
Federal flood insurance is an excellent example of government subsidy of high risk behavior. New Orleans is a model for the results of concentrated subsidy. The city in its modern form owes its existence to a wall of federal money that keeps the Mississippi River out of the streets.
Hurricane Katrina caused little damage to New Orleans as it passed. It wasn’t until the next day, when the wall of tax money gave way that the river rushed into the city. If it were not for the grinding toil of taxpayers across America, New Orleans could never have expanded and remained below river level. Without federal subsidy the city could never have become a geographic soup bowl.
The bungling response by FEMA and other public agencies was the second step in government’s charming waltz: Cause the problem. Fail to solve it. Demand more power. ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three. We’ll dance till we drop.
Already we are hearing how next time FEMA will get it right. Military intervention is the latest idea for escalating disaster relief. But soldiers are trained to take orders, kill people, and wreck things. Why would such skills be useful after a natural disaster? There are many reasons to think the Salvation Army will be better at relieving suffering than the U.S. Army ever will.
As Lew Rockwell pointed out in an article for the Mises Institute, public disaster relief fails, not from lack of resources or planning, but because it faces none of the market discipline that private efforts do. Failure has no consequences for failed government agents.
Rockwell observed that public officials are, “…some of the most peculiar people in the world,” because they surround themselves almost exclusively by others like them — lifetime bureaucrats, grasping politicians, hustling lobbyists and opportunistic contractors. The whole lot is isolated from markets and economic reality by guaranteed incomes, lavish perks, and the unlimited use of other people’s money. They have power over vast areas in which they have no personal stake. It should come as no surprise that they remain out of touch with reality in good times and bad.
Publicly funded disaster relief will always over-invest in logrolling and butt covering, activity that is uniformly unproductive, frequently dangerous and often absurd.
After Katrina, FEMA sent hundreds of volunteer firefighters away for days of sexual harassment training. The Department of Homeland Security, the nation’s frontline defense against shoe bombs, nail files and pocketknives repeatedly requested that the Red Cross leave New Orleans.
And I’ll never forget the roadblocks after Hurricane Georges in Key West. Public officials resolutely turned away money-bearing tourists and emergency supply vendors. As I waited in line every day to get to work I admired the deputies’ snappy M-16’s and camo pants. Stretched taught over normally chair bound butts nothing says “marshal law” like new cammies and shiny new machine guns. Locals were forced to waste thousands of man hours so public officials could maintain a monopoly on disaster help.
The record of how national, state and local government agencies handled Hurricane Katrina is a solid argument for eliminating public management of disaster relief altogether. The fate of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast argues just as strongly for eliminating government subsidy for building on risky ground.
Ronald Reagan once said the ten most feared words you’ll ever hear are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Reagan’s words are never truer than when our government plays the Disaster Waltz.