The Libertarian Disaster Recovery Fallacy

07/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • John McQuaid Author, "Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat"

In the wake of the Midwest floods, we're about to embark on another long and fitful recovery and rebuilding effort. Given that and the post-Katrina mess in New Orleans -- a morass of programs that either half-work, work too slowly or don't work at all -- should the federal government simply pull back and focus on the fundamentals, such as infrastructure, while letting private entities do the heavy lifting in restoring the fabric of the community? That's a recurrent theme these days in conservative and libertarian circles. Here is another take on it from Daniel Rothschild of GMU's Mercatus Center:

Government has a critical but constrained role to play in rebuilding, beginning with quickly setting and enforcing clear rules for redevelopment. That means that government-paid compensation should emphasize speed and simplicity. Don't do means-testing for disaster relief. Don't subtract out insurance payments that homeowners receive for their damaged home. And, by all means, don't use disaster-relief programs to conduct social engineering or "replanning."

Officials need to focus on the fundamentals. Allow communities to fix sewer lines, restore electricity, resume trash collection and make sure emergency services are able to handle the workload confronting them. Announce which infrastructure projects will be undertaken first and establish timelines for completion. And by all means, make these commitments credible and realistic. Revelations of sloppy work or promises made in haste only to be reneged upon do immense damage to rebuilding.


Unfortunately, the scale of major disasters leads many people to conclude that only governments have the resources to deal with the aftermath. This could not be further from the truth. What makes sustainable rebound possible is the rebuilding of communities and the organizations that support them: businesses, civic groups, religious communities and nonprofits. Governments that can't even write checks to those whose homes were destroyed can't be trusted to re-establish day-care centers, religious services or grocery stores.

I agree wholeheartedly with some of this -- certainly people should get their aid money faster, without having to jump through dozens of bureaucratic hoops. Government can only do so much, and politicians and agency heads overpromise. But the notion that most ambitious government recovery efforts a) cannot work, and b) are inimical to the restoration of civil society, doesn't make sense. Obviously, the failure of government recovery programs can result in a kind of secondary disaster. But the lesson of New Orleans is essentially a lesson of failed leadership, not generic government dysfunction. The solution to this is not to throw up our hands and pull back, but better leadership and programs that actually work.

This notion that we can return to an early 20th-century model of disaster recovery, in which the government builds roads and private organizations focus on the community, is appealing but fundamentally unrealistic.

The federal government's increasing involvement in disaster relief over the past 50 years wasn't just random, or the result of Great Society overreaching or the efforts of pork-crazed politicians. It came about because there was a need for it. Urban-suburban footprints became ever bigger and more complex, and infrastructure and development themselves increasingly influenced both the shape and scale of disasters.

That is, a 21st-century catastrophe is not something that "just happens" to a place. There is a real, and ever-growing, element of blowback from decades or centuries of decisions on where stuff was built and how. New Orleans, for example, is sinking because of the long-ago leveeing of the Mississippi; many neighborhoods were built far below sea level in a filled swamp when nobody thought much about hurricane floods, et al. The current Midwest floods are part of the same man-made phenomenon.

This means we need to be more intelligent in how we rebuild, and view this system as a whole -- how development and nature influence one another. Private entities trying to maximize their short-term interests are just not well-equipped to recognize these problems or respond to them by retrenching after a disaster. Not that government agencies are much better -- they're not. But they at least theoretically represent the broader interests that can take this into account and devise policies to address these problems. Just watch -- as disasters get bigger and more complicated, the role of government in disaster recovery and urban planning will have to grow. Let's try to actually improve it as well.

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