David Rodeback's Blog

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Wednesday, September 7, 2005
Responsibility Starts at the Bottom, not the Top

Years ago, Lady Margaret Thatcher decried a government - her own - which was taking too much from its people, in order to do too much for them. A century and a half before that, Alexis de Tocqueville predicted the decline of American freedom at some future time, when the people would allow their government to take on an enlarged, parental role, providing for all the people's needs (or at least trying to or pretending to), while the people remained in many ways children, free from the responsibilities of adulthood.

Whether Americans generally are excessively dependent on government is a topic for another day. Ironically, what we are seeing in New Orleans in particular is local and state governments' excessive dependency on the federal government. The feds are criticized for not making the locals do their job, and for not doing the locals' job for them immediately. But imagine the political firestorm if the feds had jumped in earlier, when they should have been invited, but before they actually were!

Let's look at the chain of command here - or shall we call it the chain of responsibility? We'll start at the bottom and work toward the top.

First, in a sane, adult world - which The Big Easy apparently is not - individuals and families have primary responsibility to take care of themselves. I make as many mistakes as the next guy, but I don't blame their consequences on the President of the United States. If my family or I suffered or died because I refused to evacuate when told to, or because I didn't have a plan for evacuating in the face of a known and somewhat predictable threat, I would be the first person to blame me. (That reminds me: I have a broken smoke detector to replace Saturday.)

For the previous paragraph alone, I will be accused of blaming the victims, which nice people supposedly do not do. But I'm not saying all the victims are to blame, or even that those who deserve some blame deserve it all. (I also don't care what color their skin is, Reverend Jackson.) I certainly am not trying to lump the majority who behaved responsibly with the minority who did not. But as Neal Boortz has observed,

What we saw in New Orleans was, in some part, the poor demonstrating the very behavior that made them poor in the first place, and the behavior that keeps them poor. We saw a complete and utter lack of self sufficiency and sense of responsibility. It was as if they had no sense of responsibility for their own safety.

In Boortz's defense and my own, I note that this does not mean we should not help the victims. He continues:

Did they deserve help? Of course! That's the role of government, and it's clear that the Mayor of New Orleans did next to nothing to make sure that the poorest citizens had a way out. But somewhere along the line someone has to recognize that the so-called poor do have some responsibility for their own lives and their own safety.

Before we move from the people to the people's governments, Thomas Sowell thinks the people problem is bigger than just New Orleans.

Second, local government failed in at least these ways: It had about 300 years to make the levees adequate; it did not. It has even had some funding, which reportedly trickled away to unauthorized destinations. It had an evacuation plan, which it did not implement. It had rehearsed relatively recently for just such a disaster, but did not implement the lessons learned. Local law enforcement broke down badly; some of the many officers who turned in their badges rather than do their job actually joined the looters - and the looting started before the storm even hit, long before the levees failed. The mayor's own inadequate and amazingly whiny performance hardly deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence as Mayor Giuliani's leadership in New York in September 2001, or even the competent efforts of various Florida mayors in recent years, when hurricanes hit their cities. I almost feel sorry for the poor mayor; even the Big Media Acronyms are having a hard time swallowing his blame-Bush game.

Third, Louisiana's governor was a few days late mobilizing the National Guard and at least a day late requesting Federal assistance - and her blame game isn't going over much better with the BMA.

Fourth, I'm not sure how much blame federal agencies such as FEMA (now a wholly-owned subsidiary of Homeland Security) and the Army Corps of Engineers deserve. Probably, there will be enough to go around. But I will note that the federal response seemed even faster than usual, despite being delayed by incompetent state and local leaders.

I have observed with no surprise at all that the US Army's 1st Cavalry Division and the 82nd Airborne, now that they are on the scene, are accomplishing rather swiftly a number of missions other agencies could manage to perform only slowly, if at all. (Evacuating the Superdome comes to mind.) Seasoned combat units are not typical government agencies, after all. They have a culture of individual responsibility and honor, and they are accustomed to having to do a thing well in order even to survive. In these senses they are exactly the opposite of civilian bureaucracies.

I am probably naive to hope that Americans and the world at large will learn from Katrina that shifting personal responsibility to government is generally a ruinous thing, as is shifting local government's responsibility to a state or, worse, a national government. It is equally unlikely that the people will realize that they themselves - those who voted in the last few elections and those who did not - are largely responsible for their elected leaders' failures. Sorry, President Truman, the buck doesn't stop in the Oval Office. It stops with the people themselves.

In any case, the lessons are there, for those who choose to learn them. Any people that could actually absorb them would have a great advantage in the world.

By the way, does anyone read the Tenth Amendment to the United States Constitution any more? (Obviously, the Supreme Court doesn't.) With power comes responsibility.

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