Thousands of Americans are attempting to put their lives back together after the destruction wrought by Hurricane Sandy. Once again, those opposed to government intervention are questioning the necessity of a federal agency, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to oversee and coordinate the government’s response to disasters and national emergencies.
The timing is a little cruel. Perhaps we could have waited until the carnage subsided to begin attacking the agency presently working to help those Americans in need. Nevertheless, the scope of the federal government involvement has been a key point of contention in the 2012 presidential election, making it worthy of our consideration before we head to the polls.
The latest salvo comes from free market economist Russell S. Sobel. He argues that the government’s role at all times should be limited to protecting property rights, ensuring law and order, and undertaking major public works projects. Typical of such arguments, he claims that “centuries of research” prove that private enterprise does a better job than the government in such instances, yet very few concrete instances or examples are cited. Furthermore, in a truly stunning argument, Sobel argues that in such instances all “regulations, licenses, and taxes” ought to be suspended.
Presumably, then, a natural disaster means that we no longer care about such things as environmental protection, safety in the workplace, or ensuring that businesses and private enterprise have complied with licensing requirements so that their clients don’t end up cheated, sick, or dead. This is equivalent to saying that if we’re in a hurry to get to the bank before it closes, we should simply abandon speed limits or stopping for traffic lights.
In the Republican primaries last June, Mitt Romney offered sentiments not far removed from Sobel. He expressed a desire to see responsibility for disaster management devolved to the state level and if possible, private enterprise. Faced with a serious natural disaster in the weeks leading up to the election, Romney has changed his tune, stating that FEMA “…plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters.” Which of these two positions Romney would embody should he get elected to the presidency, we can’t be sure.
Hurricane Sandy offers a telling example of the need for coordination at the federal level. States and private enterprise do many things well. However, this type of large-scale, intra-institutional, and geographically comprehensive coordination is not one of them.
Sandy carved a path of destruction along the entire East Coast affecting scores of residents. In such instances, what is needed is some form of coordinated response from an institutional level above the singular areas affected. Dealing with the after-effects of a massive storm such as Sandy is beyond the reach of any single state, nor do they likely have the economic, material, and human resources on hand to provide immediate assistance.
And while private enterprise may have the institutional agility to respond across large geographical distances, businesses lack the ethos necessary to sustain coordinated disaster relief. It is simply not what these actors do. The ethos of the marketplace is compartmentalization, proprietary secrecy, competition, market share, and profit. To act contrary to these imperatives is to run the risk of financial ruin and this suggests that any response by private enterprise would be, almost by definition, a fragmented one.
To empower private enterprise as the locus for disaster relief not only defies rational sense. It’s downright dangerous. Individuals whose lives have been ripped apart by a natural disaster are supposed to turn to private economic actors, ideally unbound by government regulation or oversight, for their basic needs?
This is not only a recipe for an ineffective and schizophrenic response. It’s a strategy which would compound the disaster those in Sandy’s path are experiencing. Consider for instance, the role of private enterprise in rebuilding Iraq. Private companies were at the forefront of the reconstruction effort there. It’s not exactly a glowing testament to the power of the free market to provide public goods in a time of crisis.
Or, if devolution to the states seems like a better option, take the time to read Julia Ioffe’s eloquent piece detailing her experience with the 2010 Russian wildfires, where lack of federal management turned a national crisis into a public health disaster of epic proportions.
While we should be vigilant against excess and waste in national government, certain situations require the coordination of a federal agency to be conducted effectively and to provide rapid relief to those who are suffering. A shoddy federal response, such as we saw in Hurricane Katrina, suggests the need for better oversight of the individuals running the agency. What is does not suggest is elimination of such federal agencies altogether. We should be deeply skeptical of any political candidate whose public statements suggest that he or she doesn’t really understand the difference between the two.