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Transatlantic Blog

Hurricanes, heroism, and ripples in a pond

This year’s active and destructive Atlantic hurricane season has raised the anxiety level of those who live in and around the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean, and coasts on both sides of the Atlantic. The destruction wrought by every new storm – from Harvey to Ophelia – is sobering enough, but we all shudder at the thought of another Hurricane Katrina. Katrina, which hit America’s Gulf Coast 12 years ago, was the perfect storm, combining the worst of Mother Nature with the worst of human nature. The desperate images of that storm still haunt our memory – from scores of people stranded on a bridge surrounded by rising flood waters, to the Superdome crammed full of people in dilapidated and dangerous conditions for days on end.

What was a natural disaster for Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama proved a catastrophe for the city of New Orleans, due in large part to the ineptitude of government planning. Charges were widespread that the government was slow to recognize the magnitude of Katrina’s impact and slow to provide relief to those most impacted. When it did act, waste and fraud were rampant. The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report estimated that improper and fraudulent payments following Katrina were between $600 million to $1.6 billion. The New York Times reported on June 27, 2006, that Katrina “produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes, and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.” Government planners may be forever well-meaning but simply cannot restrain themselves from putting the interests of the government first. They are in fact incentivized to do this by the zero-based budgeting, wooden rulemaking, and the “use it or lose it” ways of Washington. This is government at its worst.

The contrast between lumbering national government and the nimble search-and-rescue mission of the Coast Guard provides an important lesson regarding the proper role of government.

With that said, there was one department of the federal government that was exemplary, even heroic in its response to Katrina. Days before Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the U.S. Coast Guard began marshalling resources – including their iconic red and white rescue helicopters – to the area. Their rescue efforts began the moment that the Katrina’s powerful winds died down to a level that allowed the helicopters to operate in what could only be described as marginal conditions. Over the next nine days following landfall, the men and women of the USCG rescued 24,500 people. To put that into perspective, the Coast Guard rescues an average of 5,500 people a year worldwide. (For more information, see the book LeaderMetrics by Don Trone and Mary Lou Wattman.)

The Coast Guard was faced with the same crises as every other government agency, but it outperformed them all. How? Why?

First, the scope of its mission was limited. Second, its focus and training was essential to prepare them to perform its mission in conditions analogous to the fog of war. And last but not least, is the deeply embedded ethos in its culture. According to Vice Admiral Thad Allen, USCG, one of the Coast Guard’s core principles of operation is the principle of initiative on the scene: When the situation demands it, you don’t wait for a directive from a higher authority. The USCG demonstrated a proper and essential role for the federal government, performing at its absolute finest.

The contrast between lumbering national government and the nimble search-and-rescue mission of the Coast Guard provides an important lesson regarding the proper role of government, and the principle of subsidiarity.

Subsidiarity is a principle of Catholic social thought that holds that social and political issues should be dealt with at the smallest or most immediate (local) level that is competent to resolve them. It stems from the belief in the dignity of the human person and that people closest to a social or political problem should have the primary role in developing the solution. Seeking solutions to our social and political challenges should radiate outward from the family, to the extended family, to the community (including the church community), to the city or county, to the state, and lastly to the federal level. This progression is analogous to the ripples in a pond, starting with the smallest unit of society, the family, at the center.

Subsidiarity starts with the smallest unit of society, the family, at the center.

Subsidiarity works, because each ripple is connected to the next. The closer the local connection, the more likely the agent will be to show ownership and that accountability will be sustained. Subsidiarity works, because freedom is maximized when authority is exercised via soft power within the culture. When people look to the government to solve problems as a first resort, behavior is enforced via the fist of the state, and citizens’ good habits of moral decision making are lost. Choose to disobey the ever-growing and increasingly complex body of regulations and laws that are favored by collectivists, and men with guns eventually show up at your door.

Rules and regulations are the letter of the law; soft authority is the spirit. We were made for soft authority.  Voluntarily choosing to yield to soft authority exercises and strengthens our individual moral agency.  It is an essential element in the ordering of a free society and sets the stage for human flourishing.

The federal government has an important role in disaster relief. This role does not violate the principle of subsidiarity. Following a disaster, you don’t need local input to know that search-and-rescue is critical and that the area needs safe drinking water, ready-to-eat meals, clothing, blankets, baby diapers, etc. But beyond relief, the principle of subsidiarity can provide a framework to limit the role of the government. Unless we identify ways of limiting government, the lack of accountability, the waste and corruption so evident following Katrina will multiply. Yes, subsidiarity will save tax dollars. But even more importantly, subsidiarity promotes human flourishing and moral agency more effectively than the nanny state can ever dream.

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Steve Stapleton has worked in the investment and financial consulting industry since 1986, serving individuals, business owners and nonprofit institutions with objective and unbiased investment consulting and wealth advisory services. Steve holds the Certified Investment Management Analyst® (CIMA) designation from Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania; a MBA from Bellarmine University in Louisville; and a BS in Economics, with honors from the University of Kentucky.

His volunteer activities include service on the Catholic Community Foundation Board of Trustees (past president) and Investment Committee; The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis Planned Giving Committee; Catholic Charities Indianapolis Agency Council; and the Ball State University Foundation Professional Advisers Council. He volunteers with Trusted Mentors which provides one on one mentoring to adults re-entering society from incarceration and homelessness. In his spare time he reads, thinks, prays, and writes about economics, liberty, culture, and faith.