In an editorial yesterday, the Times blasted Mitt Romney for daring to suggest that some activities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency might better be shifted to the states or “back to the private sector.” Eugene Robinson wrote essentially the same article for his syndicated Washington Post column.
In fact, Romney supports FEMA. His spokesman said, “As the first responders, states are in the best position to aid affected individuals and communities, and to direct resources and assistance to where they are needed most. This includes help from the federal government and FEMA.” At most Romney wants to shift some of FEMA’s responsibilities to the states and the private sector.
However, the Times raises an important broader issue, despite couching it in a cynical and tasteless editorial, that merits serious discussion. Does “a big storm require big government,” as the paper argues?
In fact, nearly every measure to prepare for the storm and to deal with its aftermath is a product of private efforts. Such efforts range from businesses selling bottled water, food, and emergency supplies prior to the storm; to construction companies building safe structures better able to withstand flooding and raging winds; to airlines, gas stations, and bus lines helping people evacuate prior to the storm; to Con Edison, a regulated but essentially private utility, repairing power lines; to ambulance services helping people evacuate flooded hospitals; to insurance companies assessing the damage and financing repairs; to the Red Cross providing disaster relief.
The government’s main role in dealing with the aftermath of the storm is repairing the roads, bridges, and transit systems that the government owns and operates. Obviously so long as government owns such things it must play the central role in managing their repair. (Why government need not and should not own such things is a topic for another day.) And obviously government plays an important role in keeping people safe from crime and their property safe from looters. Protecting people’s rights is the proper function of government.
The key point to recognize is this: Americans care about their lives, loved ones, and properties; thus they will take measures to protect these and keep them safe. Americans, by and large, also care about fellow Americans who suffer from catastrophes, and traditionally have spent considerable wealth and time helping those in trouble.
Although the Times presumes that we can help ourselves and others only through the bureaucratic state, evidence disproving that presumption is all around us.
Perhaps if the Times did not utterly ignore the fundamental role of personal initiative, private industry, and voluntarily financed charities in dealing with the storm, it would not recoil at the suggestion that much of what the government does with respect to emergency management might properly and productively be handled by the private sector.
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