Commentary

Storms of Stupidity on the Op-Ed Pages

By Will Wilkinson
This article appeared on Techcentralstation.com on September 9, 2005.

The tragedy and travesty of Katrina and New Orleans has three basic parts: (1) very, very bad weather hitting a perilously situated city; (2) government failure at the local, state, and federal level; (3) the poverty of New Orleans, ensuring a large population unable to leave town. Unless Katrina was meteorological retribution for the GMC Yukon Denali XL, the weather doesn’t require an explanation. But the other parts of the story do. Why did government fail so totally to fulfill its basic tasks? Why does Orleans Parish have a poverty rate of 34%, almost triple the national average?

These are hard questions that demand serious answers. But rather than offer serious answers, the wise scribes at America’s elite newspapers prefer to use the occasion of disaster, death, and mourning to parade their benighted ideological prejudices.

Maureen Dowd at the New York Times opines, “when you combine limited government with incompetent government, lethal stuff happens.” The Washington Post’s Harold Meyerson belches, “more than anything else,” it is the president’s “economic libertarianism … that has transformed a great city into an immense morgue.”

Dowd’s statement leaves her reader in lurch. Her entire column is about the incompetence of the government. So what is she saying about limited government? When you combine limited government with competence does “lethal stuff” still happen? If not, the problem is just incompetence. And then why mention limited government at all? Dowd must think there is something dangerous about limited government, per se. But the alternative is… what? Unlimited government? She’s not making sense.

Dowd does not want the government policing her sexual behavior or choosing the subject of her columns, so she’s in favor of limited government, too. When people say they’re in favor of “limited government,” they mean that government ought to be limited to the provision of a small number of essential services that could not otherwise be well provided. That’s what Dowd’s against. However, almost all advocates of limited government, in this sense, think that ensuring the provision of public goods, like levees, and protecting the lives and welfare of citizens in times of emergency, are precisely what governments are for.

Far more baffling is Dowd’s bizarre conviction that our present government, in addition to being incompetent, is in fact limited in some principled way. Dowd’s Times colleague Paul Krugman labors under a similar fatuity, writing that “the federal government’s lethal ineptitude … was a consequence of ideological hostility to the very idea of using government to serve the public good.”

But President Bush has been on an historic spending spree, each cent no doubt justified by an appeal to the numinous public good. FEMA, having been brought under the umbrella of the Department of Homeland Security, is now part of the newest, largest, most lavishly funded bureaucracy in US history, instituted for our common protection.

Nor is the Army Corps of Engineers suffering for funds, especially in Louisiana. The Washington Post reported Thursday that “over the five years of President Bush’s administration, Louisiana has received far more money for Corps civil works projects than any other state, about $1.9 billion.” The problem was, as the Post’s headline put it, “money flowed to questionable projects,” funneling resources away from truly essential government services. Meyerson’s claim that “the radical-capitalist conservatives of the past quarter-century not only haven’t supported the public expenditures, they don’t even believe there is such a thing as the public good” is, like Dowd’s and Krugman’s, backed by nothing more than the bravado of fiercely guarded stupidity. If they didn’t write for newspapers, one would wonder if they were able to read them.

The liberal columnist’s kind of government — big government — is exactly the kind we’ve got. And incompetence is built into the very idea, whether or not one’s favored party is in power. When the vaults of the treasury are thrown open for anything and everything, cronyism and absurd “public works” projects, like Alaska Congressman Don Young’s notorious $231 million “bridge to nowhere,” are inevitable. Politicians perpetually seeking reelection don’t have an incentive to spend your money to prepare for a disaster that probably won’t happen on their watch when they could instead spend it on vanity projects certain to buy votes. As my colleague Tom Palmer put it, “no politician ever cut a ribbon over a filled pothole.”

When principled limitations to the scope of government are absent, the necessities of government become mere side projects of vote hunting glad-handers and pork sniffing crony-bureaucrats. When government is unbounded, it is always left impotent to prioritize and coordinate on its most necessary functions. New Orleans is paying for the failure to limit government, for the profligate abuse of the notion of the public good.

Meyerson’s insane claim that Bush’s “economic libertarianism” turned New Orleans into an “immense morgue” shows he is living inside a hallucination even more surreal than Dowd’s and Krugman’s. Bush is to economic libertarianism what Kirstie Alley is to emaciation. A president who fattened farm subsidies, installed tariffs for steel and lumber, doled out a massive new prescription drug benefit, and nationalized airline security, folding it into a vast, cumbersome, dangerously ineffectual bureaucracy, is hardly channeling the ghost of Murray Rothbard. Last year the administration slapped a whopping 113% tariff on shrimp from China designed to protect Louisiana shrimpers from market competition. In what alternative universe is that laissez faire?

Dowd, Krugman, and Meyerson evidently loathe free markets and limited government. And they also loathe the Bush administration. Apparently it would be nice for them if they could bundle their hatreds into a package of loathing, tie it up in spite, and burn it. So they try. But the package won’t hold together, and they can’t bash Bush without burning themselves. The most cursory inspection of the front page indicates that the difference between him and them is simply the details of their hostility to economic freedom and small government.

None of the columnists tell us which boondoggle they’d nix, or which budget they’d slash, or, most importantly, which perverse political incentives they would reform to ensure that government is focused on its real job and our tax money is spent on legitimate services. No doubt they believe that their version of big government and fettered markets would lift the poor from their squalor, inspire Swiss watch precision in the bureaucracy, and finally give birth to the hurricane killing weather control satellite. But self-righteous political fantasy doesn’t add up to competent political analysis, and it doesn’t begin to fix the broken institutions that delivered the hideously botched response in New Orleans.

Now, suppose you despised the designated hitter with a fervor rivaling your rabid hatred for George W. Bush, who, it so happens, once owned a piece of the Texas Rangers. If you blamed the American League for bodies rotting in the streets of New Orleans, what would that make you?

Will Wilkinson is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute.