Acton Commentary

Afterthoughts on the Aftermath of the New Orleans Flood


A month after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the collapse of levees around New Orleans, and the disappointment with the government's relief efforts, let's take a look at the lessons we should learn from this disaster.

The disaster was much more about the flood than the hurricane. Many people seem to be missing this point. The over-estimation of Hurricane Rita's predicted impact is one symptom. Another side-effect is that, relatively speaking, the damage wrought by Katrina outside of New Orleans was ignored by the media. When we think about the devastation of hurricanes, unfortunately, we're far more likely to remember flooded New Orleans than flattened coastal Mississippi.

The blame game never ends--and rarely takes a break. It was good to see the Democrats and Republicans wait, oh, a few hours before they started blaming each other. Instead of a dispassionate analysis of the debacle after the dust had settled, we were mostly left with partisan hacks throwing mud at each other almost as soon as they could grab a handful.

All levels of government bear some blame for the debacle. The federal government could have responded more quickly and effectively. But state and local plans were woefully inadequate and their implementation was inept. Anyone who tries to ascribe blame to only one level of government is remarkably blind or politically motivated.

The federal government bore too much blame and is now trying to bear too much responsibility. Why do people expect the federal government to be the chief solution to an essentially state and local problem? The federal government is not especially competent; the disaster is out of its jurisdiction; and it's not as if it doesn't have enough to do already! And not surprisingly, local officials want boatloads of federal taxpayer dollars while being given as much control as possible over how those resources will be spent.

Far too many people depend on government far too much. Let me get this straight: government failed at all levels--before, during, and after the disaster--so the solution is to get the government more involved? Moreover, for the last 40 years, the federal and state governments have been busy subsidizing bad decisions by individuals through public policy. The result: many people have been left unable to make decisions to promote their own well-being--or unwilling to do so, knowing that the government would probably bail them out. Natural disaster plus government ineptitude plus sin-nature equals a debacle of biblical proportions.

Private charitable activity is always better. Charity is always preferred ethically because people are engaged in voluntary, mutually beneficial exchange with others. Charity is always preferred biblically because it fills the biblical mandate to love others, especially those who are the most vulnerable. Charity, if done well, is preferred practically, because it is more effective, more efficient, and can focus on the spiritual as well as the material concerns of the needy. Again, if government is ineffective, shouldn't our response be less dependence on government and more encouragement of private activity?

Politicians really enjoy spending taxpayer money. President Bush has said that he wants to spend $200 billion post-Katrina and cut spending elsewhere so that overall spending does not increase. He might as well say he'd like to see cows fly. The few Republican fiscal conservatives in Congress have run with this charge by proposing “Operation Offset”-- a plan to reduce pork-barrel highway spending and to postpone the recently-passed prescription benefit for seniors. For their efforts, they have already been brow-beaten by the House leadership. And Bush has repeatedly shown that he has no stomach or backbone for fiscal discipline.

Your taxes will rise dramatically. Bush says that he is committed not to raise taxes. If so, this means an increase in the national debt--in other words, higher future taxes. At this point, Congress is now looking to spend $250 billion--over and above the amount that private insurance will pay in claims. This turns out to be more than $3,300 in taxes from the average family of four, and almost $200,000 per person in the New Orleans metropolitan area before the flood. Honesty and candor would require a mention of the spending's impact on taxes. Unfortunately, another Category-5 hurricane is more likely.

It is impossible, of course, to be completely prepared for an event such as Katrina. A natural disaster is by definition destructive and disruptive. But these lessons point to the fact that a sound moral culture--one that promotes both self-reliance and social obligation, moral responsibility in the absence of coercive legal enforcement, and an ethic of sacrifice rather than entitlement--is an essential component of a free society, both in times of prosperity and in times of hardship.