Disasters usually prompt calls for a top‐down response led by the Commander in Chief and guided by the supposedly higher expertise in Washington. Many people know that there are constitutional limits on federal power but nonetheless think that centralized command‐and‐control makes for an efficient disaster response.
Regarding the Covid‐19 crisis, Bloomberg columnist Noah Smith said that an “Abdication of leadership by the federal government left the job of shutdowns to state and local governments.”
But there was no “abdication.” State, local, and private leadership is usually the best approach for nonmilitary emergencies. Walter Olson notes about the current crisis: “In America’s constitutional design, while federal law is supreme, the national government is confined to enumerated powers. It has no general authority to dictate to state governments. Many of the powers government holds, in particular the ‘police power’ invoked to counter epidemics, are exercised by state governments and the cities to which states delegate power.”
Smith suggests that such federalism is not practical in the modern world: “One possibility is that the U.S. is burdened with outdated 18th‐century institutions. Federalism leaves many powers to the states, making it hard for the central government to coordinate a pandemic response even when leadership is strong and competent.”
But Olson argues that a decentralized response is not outdated. Indeed, it makes more sense because the states have better knowledge of local resources, local hazards, and local priorities, as well as greater flexibility to respond quickly and effectively. Also, by trying to “coordinate” during disasters, I have argued that the federal government usually slows the response by adding layers of rules.
Smith concludes: “The crucial question is whether and how the decline in U.S. effectiveness might be reversed. Restoring the prestige of the civil service, centralizing functions such as responding to pandemics and electing competent and focused leaders are certainly all important steps.”
Alas, that is the naïve Progressive view that Washington knows best. We’ve had a century of federal failures since the Progressive era, including many failures in preparing for and responding to disasters. Where were the “competent and focused” federal leaders during Hurricane Katrina?
In this study, I discussed the history of policies toward disasters, the role of federalism, and the failed federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The study also discusses the often‐superb responses of private businesses and charities to disasters, including after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, the Great Easter Flood of 1913, and Hurricane Katrina of 2005.
In the current crisis, we are seeing some brilliant efforts at the nation’s hospitals, medical research facilities, businesses, and other institutions that will no doubt get us through one of the largest disasters ever.