It is a foundational question in American political discourse: What is the purpose of government?
Last week, we found out.
As you quite possibly have heard, a hurricane by the name of Sandy recently crept up along the northeast coast of the United States, killing several dozen people and transfiguring large chunks of New York and New Jersey into powerless makeshift lakes and streams.
As anticipated, President Barack Obama activated the services of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) with all deliberate speed, to help coordinate rescue and clean-up efforts in afflicted areas in whatever ways it could. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie heaped effusive praise on Obama for the swiftness of the federal government’s response to the meteorological mayhem. Michael Brown, former FEMA director, criticized the president for the exact same thing.
Predictably—what with a presidential election hanging in the balance—some have argued that it is unseemly to discuss the political implications of Hurricane Sandy whilst the Jersey Shore is still submerged and lower Manhattan is only just regaining its electricity. These are the same people (I presume) who argue that the day after a mass shooting is no time to discuss gun control. They should be ignored.
As with any large-scale event such as this, there are a thousand possible avenues down which one can travel to discuss What It All Means. One must pick one’s battles with great care and discrimination.
Accordingly, I will take the opportunity to make only the smallest of observations, to which I alluded in my opening: There are concrete justifications for the existence of a strong federal government, and Hurricane Sandy is one of them.
The libertarian (and sometimes conservative) view about the role of government in general can be fairly reduced to the Henry David Thoreau formulation, “That government is best which governs least.” Grover Norquist expressed like sentiment when he proclaimed, “I’m not in favor of abolishing the government. I just want to shrink it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.”
The alternative to government industry, the argument inevitably goes, is private industry. My high school economics teacher explained as well as anyone that profit incentives trump altruism in nearly every case. Take that, basic human solidarity!
In the matter of this hurricane, I do not argue that the existence of FEMA is better than a privately-run counterpart on moral, or even economic, grounds. I do not dispute the notion that a good paycheck can result in good work.
The case for FEMA, rather, rests on a line by Bill Maher, “There are some jobs that are so enormous that only the government can do it.”
Color me unimaginative, but I simply cannot picture any single private organization having the wherewithal or the gravitas to pull off an operation as complex and as massive as what the aftermath of a major hurricane requires.
The point of a federal agency is to have a strong central authority. For all the areas of public life in which such a thing would be intolerable, hurricane relief demands it. A time-sensitive situation that involves cooperation between city and state officials—in multiple cities and states, no less—needs (in Big Lebowski terms) a rug that ties the room together.
This is not a matter of ideology. It is a simple question of prudence.
Of course, such an authority requires a competent executive at the helm, and this fact is all you need to explain the discrepancy between FEMA’s respective performances following Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
To the degree that President Obama has been criticized for using his power over FEMA to make himself look good in these closing hours of his re-election campaign, I can only inquire as to why President Bush did not endeavor to make himself look so good in 2005. Good governance might not always also be good politics, but sometimes the stars align. A chief executive who does not seize such an opportunity is a fool.
The lesson to be learned from Hurricane Sandy, as it has coagulated in my own head, is that there are certain areas of the federal government that can, and do, work perfectly well, just so long as those pulling the levers are competent and accountable. That’s what elections are all about.
If you would prefer this in more Thoreauvian terms: That government is best which governs best.