Big Government's Katrina

The mess in the Gulf of Mexico is not just Obama's Katrina. It is Big Government's Katrina.

Thank goodness it happened on the Democrats' watch. When George W. Bush was president, the lackadaisical performance of the federal government could be set down to Republican disinterest in governance. Republicans don't care about people, either, so you'd expect that they would leave a bunch of African-Americans mouldering in the Superdome for days. But when a Democratic president dilly-dallies around as evil crude oil is gushing into the pristine environment, well, then it's time for intelligent and educated Americans to take another look. Something is obviously wrong with the system.

Let me be the first to help out you New York Times readers and NPR listeners. The problem is not the competence of President Barack Obama, even though he is earnestly proving his critics' line that he is a political organizer and not a national leader. Yes, I know that no lesser person than Peggy Noonan has uttered the dreaded C-word in The Wall Street Journal. But she is missing the point.

The problem with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina and to the Deepwater Horizon explosion is that the liberal model of expert administrative bureaucracy is remarkably ill-adapted to emergencies. Bureaucracy is suitable for the routine control of a subject population. It is the preferred organizational model for builders of orthodoxy, whether Christian or Communist or Progressive. But it is not suitable for flexible response to disaster.

Armies wrestle with this problem all the time. They are rigid hierarchies that need to be flexible to master the chaos of battle. Things were bad enough in the old days, when a general could view the whole battlefield from his horse. He was still reduced to hoping that resourceful officers would translate his orders into effective tactics. By the end of the First World War and its lethal battlefield, generals were finding that they needed resourceful individual soldiers, and so, in 1921, the German General von Seeckt decreed that the German army now needed individual soldiers who were "self-reliant, self-confident, dedicated, and joyful in taking responsibility." Col. Klink and Sgt. Schultz need not apply.

Somehow this notion has failed to penetrate to the civil side of government. Our liberal friends believe that the only way to govern is by detailed and penetrating supervision of the private sector. Half a century ago, they called it "planning." 

There's only one problem: What do you do when things go wrong? Obviously you cannot run all problems up the hierarchy for a decision. You must push decision-making power downwards to the people closer to the action.

You must do what Wal-Mart did before the original Hurricane Katrina. CEO Lee Scott sent the word out to Wal-Mart's people in the New Orleans area: "A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level. Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing."

We cannot know whether CEO Scott really trusted his people. But in the emergency, he had no choice. He told his people that he trusted them to do the right thing, and he left it to them to make the right decisions.

That's not the way the big government operates. In fact, it goes against everything that government believes in. Government doesn't believe in treating people like trustworthy adults. It always wants to boss them around like they're children. Lee Harris captures the point in his new book The Next American Civil War: The Populist Revolt Against the Liberal Elite.  He writes:

The whole point of the paternalism exercised by parents towards their children is to make sure that one day their kids will be able to take charge of their own lives... Its goal is to turn infants into adults.  But the paternalism of the modern liberal state... reverses this pattern. Its goal is to turn adults into infants.

What was the use of all the regulations and the permits for BP's Deepwater Horizon? In the end, they failed. Did they fail because the regulation wasn't rigorous enough? Did they fail because the regulators were "captured" by the oil industry? Or did they fail because the regulations diverted the thinking of BP's engineers into drilling to the regulation instead of acting as responsible agents?

What do the regulations add to the process? Either way, BP has to clean up the mess and pay for it. Either way, politicians and pundits will make BP into a scapegoat. Either way, the federal government is clueless and frozen like a deer in the headlights.

We cannot know when the tide will turn and Americans will insist once more for a society of trust instead of blame, and responsibility instead of nannying. But one thing we know, thanks to Katrina and Deepwater Horizon. Big government can't get the job done.

Christopher Chantrill is a frequent contributor to American Thinker. See his and His Road to the Middle Class is forthcoming.
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