Commentary

Franklin Delano Bush

It wasn’t a fireside chat on the radio. No, it was different. President Bush stood in front of a church and addressed the nation by television.

But otherwise, we’re back in the days of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his big-spending, big-government New Deal. Except the New New Deal costs a lot more.

Franklin Delano Bush promised a gigantic federal relief effort—one that would go far beyond the traditional idea of disaster relief. He didn’t just promise to clean up debris, or provide temporary housing, or even rebuild New Orleans and coastal Mississippi. He promised that federal taxpayers would pay for the education of displaced children in both public and private schools. And that Medicaid would pay for health care for evacuees. And that taxpayers would give displaced workers cash grants of $5,000 each.

Sweeping streets of debris is one thing. Sweeping promises are another. Bush promised that rebuilt communities “must be even better and stronger than before the storm.” Oh, and he promised to cure poverty, inequality, and racism along the Gulf Coast.

The president didn’t tell us what all this would cost, but experts have been suggesting a figure of $200 billion. That would be about twice what American taxpayers spent (adjusted for inflation) on the Marshall Plan to rebuild all of Western Europe after the devastation of World War II. As Stephen Moore wrote in the Wall Street Journal, with $200 billion you could give each of the 500,000 evacuated families $400,000. That would surely be the largest cash transfer program in history. And it raises the question: What’s the federal government going to do that costs $400,000 per family?

Bush’s speech came just two weeks after Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana and Mississippi, revealing the incompetence of federal, state, and local governments. Clearly no serious thought has been given to what ought to be done for the future.

Have President Bush and his advisers even considered whether it makes sense to rebuild a city below sea level on a hurricane path? Maybe New Orleans should return to being the “Crescent City,” so named because it originally sat on a narrow crescent of high land on the bank of the Mississippi River. Only 51 percent of Americans think it makes sense to rebuild New Orleans, even without asking them if they’d be willing to pay for it. Don’t expect them to be asked, either.

Because the politicians know that when they’re given a chance to vote, Americans don’t like big government. Just look at the last few elections: Oregon’s liberal electorate twice voted to reject a proposed tax increase, thereby instructing the legislature to cut spending. Alabama voters rejected Gov. Bob Riley’s $1.2 billion tax hike by a 2-to-1 margin. Voters in Virginia turned down proposed tax increases for new roads. California voters tossed out big-spending Gov. Gray Davis, and 62 percent of them voted for candidates who promised not to raise taxes to close the state’s deficit.

In a recent poll, 64 percent of voters said that they prefer smaller government with fewer services and lower taxes, while only 22 percent would rather see a more active government with more services and higher taxes. Federal taxpayers never get a chance to vote on taxes and spending. If they did, we might see a resounding rejection of President Bush’s massive increase in the federal budget.

Voters know that politicians tend to spend money to get votes, not to solve problems. Consider that Congress passed a $51.8 billion Katrina relief bill on the very day the Associated Press released a study of where the $5 billion small-business relief money after 9/11 went. It found that the funds went to a South Dakota country radio station, a Virgin Islands perfume shop, a Utah drug boutique, and more than 100 Dunkin’ Donuts and Subway shops—“companies far removed from the devastation.” Fewer than 11 percent of the loans went to companies in New York and Washington.

Bush and the new Republican Party are turning their backs on Americans who want smaller government. They’re delivering big-government conservatism across the board. But we already have a big-government party. The voters deserve a debate over the size and power of government. They deserve a debate right now on whether it is the responsibility of people in New York and Illinois and Colorado to pay for the education, health care, housing, and business investments of people in Louisiana and Mississippi.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and coeditor of theCato Handbook on Policy.