Ron Paul is, unsurprisingly, taking criticism for suggesting that there is no need for FEMA to respond to Hurricane Irene because it shouldn’t exist at all. Paul has a philosophical objection to federal intervention of this nature, but while progressives are pontificating that conservatives just don’t want to help people, they are forgetting that there is a very large difference between doing things that are supposed to help people and doing things that actually help them, and FEMA has a gross history of incompetence when it comes to actually helping people.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is most infamous, of course, for its bungled response to Hurricane Katrina. Some progressives blame this on active actions by the Bush administration to handicap the organization or divert its resources. But while we can debate about the blame for the lack of preparedness or resources, it is also clear that even the resources that were available were often mismanaged (such as the luxurious abuse of the distributed debit cards). We can argue about why FEMA was slow to establish a presence in the affected areas, but it is also clear that even when they had a presence they were often preventing other people from assisting (There are scores of infuriating stories about FEMA stopping doctors from treating victims, turning away volunteer firefighters, prohibiting volunteer boats from entering the city, and preventing the Red Cross and Walmart from delivering goods to the needy – to name a few.)
Additionally, FEMA’s historical incompetence is not limited to Katrina. They’ve been criticized for their disaster responses since at least Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A year before Katrina, FEMA somehow managed to pay for funerals of folks in Florida who weren’t killed by the 2004 Hurricanes. “Ten of the people whose funerals were paid for were not even in Florida at the time of their deaths.” FEMA is also guilty of staging a fake press conference to try to improve their image.
Organizations like FEMA highlight the stark contrast between competing visions of government. The technocrats view FEMA’s problems as minor problems of execution. Like a big machine, it can be tweaked and tuned up somehow and made to run right – and the technocrats are smart enough to figure it out. If we replace the incompetent managers of the previous administration we didn’t like, or increase their budget enough, or root out enough corruption, or bring in enough updates and upgrades, we can make this thing work! Hey, FEMA is on Twitter now! Maybe that will help them respond more efficiently!
Maybe it will, but I can’t help think that there are fundamental problems with FEMA that can never be solved by bigger budgets or smarter management. William Anderson at Mises offers the following:
As we now know, government agents stymied attempts by private individuals and organizations to bring provisions to people who had none. People languished for about five days before the “cavalry” arrived, bringing provisions and some bit of hope…
Even if the heads of FEMA were stellar professionals (which they are not), they still would not have been able to make informed and intelligent decisions from their original vantage points. Instead, the very people who should have been making decisions — the ones who were closest to the disaster — were the ones purposely left out of the loop.
He blames the blocking of outside resources on government’s desire to exert control and take credit, and he also offers some disturbing accounts of “mini-dictatorships” that arose out of FEMA’s actions. Regardless of whether are not nefarious motivations are actually at play, I do believe we have to assume run-of-the-mill corruption will exist. And government will always suffer from the knowledge problem of figuring out where to allocate its massive resources. Furthermore, I am not convinced that FEMA will not actively prevent other non-government persons and organizations in the future under the guise of “establishing security” or some other form of red tape or bureaucracy.
Certainly some criticism of FEMA comes from unrealistic expectations from disaster victims about what levels of response are physically possible. Certainly some disasters like Hurricane Katrina are so overwhelming that even the best organization with the best information could not have executed with perfection. It may not be possible to perfect FEMA, and at least some of its past problems were correctable, so many believe that is no reason to get rid of it completely. What if the volunteer sector alone is not capable of “both coordinating and guaranteeing a just and effective social response to disasters”? Americans voluntarily contributed billions of dollars to Katrina relief efforts, in addition to thousands of volunteers who personally labored in the stricken areas, but, hey, the Red Cross was criticized for their response too. People out of government aren’t perfect, either. If FEMA didn’t exist – even if it wasn’t preventing trucks of bottled water from reaching thirsty victims – what if there weren’t enough of those trucks on their own?
Of course, part of these arguments come from a false choice that implies that “abolishing FEMA” means “no federal government assistance for disasters ever.” FEMA has only been around since 1979. Libertarians like Ron Paul might prefer if the government never sent assistance in any other way, either, but Congress has historically offered various forms of assistance to disaster victims on a case-by-case basis, long before FEMA ever existed. Even today we read about Defense Department helicopters being loaded with lifesaving equipment in preparation for Hurricane Irene.
I am becoming more and more convinced that FEMA is not really necessary. There is a large combination of market forces, charitable organizations, and government action these days to help prepare for disasters like hurricanes. Wal-Mart increases their stocks of flashlights and canned goods in areas with approaching hurricanes. The Red Cross is preparing shelters, and the National Guard is standing by. When disaster strikes, the media informs citizens around the country, who respond with millions or billions of dollars in donations and thousands of hours of voluntary labor, in addition to the non-profits and charities that are already on the ground, distributing supplies and saving lives. In the long-term, the federal government can offer ad hoc assistance, which allows for help when needed but also eliminates the implicit guarantees that create moral hazard.
Thus I’m not sure that FEMA is necessary before, during, or after a crisis. People may worry that the alternative assistance might not be very reliable, but it doesn’t appear that FEMA is very reliable now. Maybe instead of dumping resources into another organization that sluggishly appears on the scene to take charge and tell people where they can and cannot go, the federal government should look for ways to enhance the flow of important information to existing support networks, and to empower individuals and individual organizations to do an even better job of responding to disasters than they are already doing. Maybe that’s a utopian libertarian fantasy every bit as unrealistic as the perfectly controlled technocratic machine. But maybe FEMA can at least stop rejecting trucks of bottled water from Wal-Mart…