Commentary

A Government Spread Too Thin

By Patrick Basham
This article appeared in the Baltimore Sun, September 9, 2005.
WASHINGTON - Politically, President Bush may find it difficult to recover from Hurricane Katrina, but not for the reasons you might think. Mr. Bush’s real problem isn’t aiding the hurricane victims or the search for uplifting Reaganesque rhetoric. Instead, it’s the weight of an oversized federal government that hindered both preparation for and the response to this tragedy. It is a government that may fail again during this presidency.

Mr. Bush did acknowledge the unacceptable nature of the relief effort. Since then, he’s paddled furiously to stay ahead of the media and partisan blame game, but point-scoring shouldn’t be the president’s principal political concern. That’s because Mr. Bush’s restrained response hasn’t played that badly in middle America.

Gallup polls before, during and after Katrina reached the Gulf Coast found Mr. Bush’s approval ratings going up, not down. In the short term, at least, elite and popular opinions about his performance are clearly out of synch. The public’s reaction to the federal government’s response to the physical disaster is highly ambivalent. A Washington Post survey finds Americans nearly split down the middle over whether they approve of Mr. Bush’s handling of this crisis.

It was always the anarchy on the streets that truly threatened to drown Mr. Bush politically. Before an infusion of troops calmed the social waters, New Orleans more closely resembled a war zone than a relief zone. Prolonged scenes of violence and sustained lawlessness would have produced an unambiguously negative, and lasting, public reaction.

Hospitals under sniper fire and storeowners armed in the face of marauding gangs signified government failure writ large. Whether government has a role to play in disaster relief is a subject worthy of debate. What isn’t debatable is the government’s responsibility for enforcing public order and the protection of property rights. Most Americans intuitively appreciate this.

It’s also apparent that, while government wasn’t responsible for this natural disaster, it may be responsible for making the tragic impact even more devastating. Long-ignored warnings that the city would be unprepared for the aftermath of a natural disaster place the blame squarely in the hands of Uncle Sam.

The flooding of New Orleans had long been predicted, yet the Gulf Coast region was inadequately prepared. There were innumerable warnings that New Orleans’ levees were too low and too weak to prevent flooding and the city’s drainage systems insufficient to withstand Katrina-like conditions.

Katrina first was identified as a threat to the Gulf Coast on Aug. 24. The federal government had five days to prepare for the Gulf Coast to be hit. Nonetheless, government coordination was incomplete, hence the confusion among federal, state and local officials. There was also an inadequate police and National Guard presence to deter the looting.

These well-documented deficiencies reflect significant government overreach. Government simply does too much and costs too much. It’s spread too wide and, therefore, appears too thin (the National Guard, for example) at precisely those moments when government action may be appropriate, such as in response to a catastrophic natural disaster.

The federal government might have been in a position to do more for the 5 million residents affected in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama if it had been doing fewer things elsewhere. Rather than doing so many things so poorly, might government do greater good (and certainly less harm) if it just did less?

The myriad federal departments and agencies now responding to the disaster betray how gargantuan the government has grown. The record federal government spending that’s occurred during Mr. Bush’s presidency means that the government’s tentacles reach literally everywhere, from education to agriculture, from transportation to health, from labor to energy, small business to environmental protection. Still, as the situation in New Orleans demonstrated, government was found wanting on a matter as fundamental as law and order.

The New Orleans flood of 1927 mobilized nationwide public opinion in support of federal involvement in disaster relief. But the principal lesson of the Big Easy’s contemporary tragedy is the need for the policy pendulum to swing back in the direction of a more modest federal government. A less interventionist government may prove better able to act during those rare moments when a government response isn’t merely demanded but required.

Patrick Basham is senior fellow in the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute.