Towards A Good Samaritan World

Friday, September 09, 2005


I'm a bit bemused by all the charges of incompetence against the feds, and Bush, in their reaction to Hurricane Katrina. I guess there's probably some truth in it, because the critiques are coming, not only from Paul Krugman but also from Charles Krauthammer and David Brooks and Gerard Baker (though the conservative voices blast the Democratic mayor and governor more than the president). But really, how do people figure out whether this government response was particularly incompetent or not? What's their ground for comparison?

Democrats want you to believe that they would have done it better. Are we just supposed to take their word for it? It seems like asking the public to take their word for it that they're superior to Republicans is a pattern with Democrats lately. Some Republicans have a similar game: they're pointing to Rudy Giuliani as someone who would have done the job well. I wouldn't mind if a result of this crisis is the rise of Rudy Giuliani. But he might be a false hero.

The lesson of this is simpler and more intuitive. Big Government is incompetent. Not just when Bush is in the head of it, nor because of Governor Blanco or Mayor Nagin. In general. Maybe there are occasional exceptions, when an inspired leader takes charge, rides roughshods over the rules and legalisms, risks getting skewered by lawyers and journalists later, and gets something done. But in general. Big Government is incompetent. Didn't we always know this? Didn't the delay at the passport office, the boring-ness of your friend's government job, the connotations of the word "bureaucracy," get you wise to this long ago? The journalists are trying to make us feel surprised and indignant. Surely we know better, don't we?

More specifically, bureaucracies, and especially public-sector bureaucracies, are bad at thinking creatively, at adapting to new situations, and above all at speed. My wife and I wanted to get married and come to America together in the spring of 2004. We were apart for seven months waiting for government paperwork to be processed. It's been another eight months and we still haven't gotten her job permission. For us in the meantime: lots of emotional angst, boredom, frustration, and tens of thousands of dollars of lost income. Waste, waste, waste. That's bureaucracy, that's government. Duh.

And yet a hurricane comes along, and this impulse appears in a lot of us to think of the government, not as the hulking bureaucratic annoyance, the byword for waste and inefficiency and paper-pushing persecution of normal citizens that we know it is in our commonsense mode, but as a Big Brother, wise and strong and caring. And when it doesn't turn out to be like that, we get mad. We need to learn to silence the naivity within.

While the government was incompetent, individual citizens weren't. Some inspiring stories:

My office became so frustrated with the bureaucracy that we often turned to private companies. They responded more quickly and flexibly.

After our staff visited communities to assess local needs, Budweiser delivered truckloads of water and ice. Ford provided vehicles for search and rescue. Every company we contacted provided goods and services without compensation...

Spending my days on the ground in Louisiana last week, I did not see much television. But I understand that some media let the violent and destructive acts of a few overshadow the many acts of compassion and heroism.
Contrary to the pictures you may have seen, the vast majority of New Orleanians did not take to the street with weapons--far more risked their own safety to help neighbors and strangers.

When first responders said they needed more flat boats to pick people out of the water, they were overwhelmed by the line of volunteers. When people at a shelter in Baton Rouge announced they needed drinks, within hours they were flooded with more Gatorade than they could possibly use.

Churches throughout Louisiana opened their doors to take in evacuees. Individuals organized a network to open their homes to strangers, using phone trees and the Internet to link up those in need with those who care. Evacuation centers are flooded with volunteers and supplies.

Many rescue and relief workers, themselves victims of Katrina, have not left their posts for days. Health-care staffers have hand-ventilated patients. Law enforcement officials braved high waters and violence. People from all over the nation are contacting me, especially people in areas recently devastated by their own tragedies, to offer assistance.

We should know better than to look to the government to save us. We should look to people, to each other. And for those of us with religious inclinations, to God.


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