- - Sunday, November 4, 2012


Before North Easterners could take adequate stock of the damage left in Hurricane Sandy’s wake, the New York Times rushed to use the disaster as a rationale for expanded government: “Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of ‘big government,’” proclaimed an editorial entitled, “A Big Storm Requires Big Government.”

The Times’ editors denounced the idea that the states lay claim to any political sovereignty, calling the suggestion an “absurd notion.” If only the authors of the Federalist papers had a subscription to the Times, they could have saved themselves the tedious labor of penning those 85 essays. It also skipped any substantive argument and relied heavily on the persuasiveness of rhetorical condescension: “Does Mr. Romney 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?”

Let’s forget for the moment that some states are far better off than the federal government, whose $16 trillion in debt might qualify it as “financially strapped.” One of the principal arguments for our federalist brand of republicanism, built on a preference for state-level self-governance when possible, is that each state is best positioned to understand and attentively respond to its own idiosyncratic needs. We should expect that a remote and centralized bureaucracy, naturally inclined to one-size-fits-all solutions, would be an inefficient superintendent of any particular state’s safety.

This is why, since its inception in 1979, FEMA’s mission was narrowly circumscribed, making the agency a handmaiden to state and local authorities. Furthermore, as declared in a 1988 act of Congress, any request for federal aid required circumstances “of such severity and magnitude that effective response is beyond the capabilities of the state and affected local governments.” Notice that the norm here is the authority of the state and federal intercession is the anomaly.

While it is true that FEMA under President George W. Bush responded to Katrina with, to borrow a term from Mr. Obama, a “suboptimal” performance, the burden of first response should have been shouldered by Louisiana. The media obsessively scrutinized FEMA’s sclerotic emergency management, neglecting the unheralded heroes of that crisis: Gov. Rick Perry of Texas and Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi, who so beautifully secured their own states they were able to absorb a considerable number of displaced Louisiana residents. They both achieved this without a federally directed rescue.

Similarly, the unsung protagonist of the Hurricane Irene disaster was the private sector: Retailers like Walmart and Home Depot reapportioned their resources, at considerable cost to themselves, to funnel supplies to those who needed them most. Let’s lob a rhetorical question back at the editors of the Times: Does anybody really think the federal government would be more efficient in responding to a natural disaster than a local Walmart? I’d love to see the results of that nationwide poll.

Declarations of emergency have always been a favorite instrument of governments inclined to their own aggrandizement; this is why Cuba has been in state of emergency for half a century. As the ancient argument goes, the chaotic slog that is democratic self-rule is simply ill-suited to exigent circumstances. We need a Leviathan unburdened by the strictures of consent and representation. What counts as an emergency, and the budgets these emergency powers demand, both predictably expand like a rising yeast. Since 1980, federal spending on “emergency” measures has quadrupled.

Another ancient response to emergency is the collective vigilance of the people, open to some assistance from the federal government but primarily responsible for themselves. This is not only the most effective measure available, but the one most respectful of our dignity as citizens charged with, and ennobled by, the obligations of self-governance.

Ivan Kenneally is editor in chief of Dailywitness.com.



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