Thursday, September 29, 2005

Column on Exploiting Disasters

Exploiting Disasters

Tibor R. Machan

In the beginning of the American republic there was a debate between the
Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. Neither side was advancing a fully
consistent, coherent vision of politics for America but, in the main,
Hamiltonians defended the idea of a strong federal, while Jefferson?s
supporters argued for limited and mainly local government. The debate has
never completely ended, although Hamiltonians triumphed when it comes to
how America evolved.

In our day there is little mainstream opposition to the Hamiltonian big
government vision. Both parties champion it, differing only on what
aspects of society each would like to have government control more fully,
more aggressively. Conservatives focus mainly on shaping our souls?they
want to bring church and state closer together, they demand that religious
teaching be spread across the land, while liberals are primarily
interested in having government control the economy, raise minimum wages,
regulate corporations, and tax and spend to their heart?s content. Don?t
kid yourself?each side embraces aggressive moralizing to the core.

In times of emergencies the fact that both the liberals and the
conservatives have embraced big government?not only in terms of its size
and cost but even more importantly regarding its scope of power?comes
across most clearly. The only minor dispute between these two factions
concerns which level of government should be most involved, state or
federal. Conservatives prefer that state governments wield the greater
power and carry the greater burden, while liberals champion unrestrained
federal involvement.

The fact that neither alternative is working well, no matter what the
crisis happens to be?natural, like Katrina and Rita, or man made such as
terrorism?does not bother either side too much. Sure, there are some who
sound alarms about too much government power, say, when it comes to
sacrificing civil liberties in the war on terror or, on the other side,
when massive and reckless federal spending is contemplated as a remedy for
whatever ails the country. But aside from such details, the consensus
tends to be that when people face big trouble, the way to go is with big

The disaster by the Gulf of Mexico and the visual imagery that millions
of us experienced from the region, has given the Hamiltonians a
considerable opportunity to bolster their case. As an example, one need
but read Michael Ignatieff, Carr professor of human rights at Harvard
University?s Kennedy School of Government, in the September 25th issue of
The New York Times Magazine. To bolster his ongoing support for big,
unlimited federal government, Ignatieff penned ?The Broken Contract,? a
piece in which he propounds the notion that the American people have
entered into a contract which requires that they be protected by
government from all hazards and dangers and crisis. As he puts the point,

[The contract?s] basic term is protection: helping citizens to protect
their families and possessions from forces beyond their control. Let's not
suppose this contract is uncontroversial. American politics is a furious
argument about what should be in the contract and what shouldn't be. But
there is enough agreement, most of the time, about what the contract
contains for America to hold together as a political community. When
disasters strike, they test whether the contract is respected in a
citizen's hour of need. When the levees broke, the contract of American
citizenship failed.

Actually, of course, no such contract was ever entered into. In the
American political tradition if any kind of contract between the citizens
and their government exists, it involves the very limited terms of getting
protection of one?s basic rights. As stated in the Declaration of
Independence, where this political vision is sketched, it is ?to secure
these rights [that] governments are instituted among men, deriving their
just powers from the consent of the government.?

This is unambiguously put?governments exist so as to protect our rights,
not to protect us ?from forces beyond our control.? In other words,
American government wasn?t conceived as our doctor, dentist, tree surgeon,
hurricane fighter, flood preventer, and all the various professionals whom
we hire when ?forces beyond our control? threaten or invade our lives.
American government exists to fight criminals, not nature.

It should be simple to understand this. Government is made up of
politicians and bureaucrats, not professionals who know how to handle all
the varieties of disasters that we can encounter in life. Whenever
government extends itself to attempt to cope with these adversities, all
that really happens is that it grows by leaps and bounds. (The best
scholarly work on this is Robert Higgs? Crisis and Leviathan [Oxford
University Press, 1987].)

Yet, of course, even as academic cheerleaders of big government like
Michael Ignatieff admit outright that government failed in this latest, as
it has in innumerable other, disaster management, they also use the
disaster to call for more and more government.

Instead, they ought to call for taking government out of the picture and
acclimating all of us to the simple and vital fact that disasters are best
managed with paid professionals, ones who would be prepared and step up to
the plate if only government didn?t pretend to be there for us, feigning
?to protect [our] families and possessions from forces beyond our control.?

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