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FEMA and the Role of Government

A friend on Facebook posted the following yesterday:

I’ll politicize it. How do you feel about the role of government now? Romney implied during the primaries that funding FEMA was ‘immoral’

Leaving aside the accuracy of the characterization of Romney’s comments, what do you make of FEMA as good government? 

I was in a  mood, so of course I jumped in to make the case that disaster relief should be state-based, i.e. why should someone in Wyoming be responsible for…

  1. Crow

    I am for limited government, not for no government.

    Preparing public infrastructure against and providing relief from Acts of God seems to me to fall well within the scope of a limited government and for many of the same way reasons a fire department does.

    There are some aspects of government in which we want deliberation to rule the day–such as the legislative process. There are others in which swift action and energy are necessary, as in many of the crisis management and war fighting powers of the Executive.

    So, if disaster relief is a valid government function, what level of government is it best addressed by? I don’t expect a Federal Fire Fighting Force from DC to descend into my neighborhood if my neighbors house is on fire. Writ large, this principle means, in general, I think that the level which responds should be determined by the size of the disaster.

    Another general principle: Federal dollars and Federal agencies of one sort or another may be extremely useful in coordinating aid and bringing many resources to bear on a problem. But, Governors, States, and localities are the first, and should be the primary, responders.

  2. Austin Murrey

    Hopefully I have a chance to chime in before Fred Cole does and I will do so by saying no, government relief is not good government.  The ultimate responsibility for the property that has been damaged lies with the property owners, and the lives of citizens are those citizens responsibility, not the governments.

    This isn’t to say that we should simply allow people to founder in the case of disaster but the burden should be voluntarily shouldered, as a good deal of it will be, by private citizens and organizations such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. 

    Coercion on the funds from one group of citizens to another based on the circumstance determined by the government (i.e. force) is immoral, disaster or no.

  3. Schrodinger

    FEMA has a role in these kinds of disasters. But, their role should be subordinate to the state and local authorities. Coordination is the key word. Let the locals make the decisions.

  4. Larry3435

    There is a part of me, the Schadenfreude part, that secretly wants the idiots who refused to evacuate to pay the price, rather than get rescued with taxpayer dollars.  But at the end of the day, I put floor under my small government philosophy when lives are at stake.  Small government does not mean no government.   Saving lives is valid.  And government should rebuild the infrastructure afterward.  But I would draw the line at big giveaways to people who didn’t bother to buy insurance.  Once everybody is safe, and the subways are running again, the freeloaders can pay for their own repairs.

  5. Aaron Miller

    What need is there really for federal involvement in disaster relief?

    The states don’t need federal assistance to voluntarily loan each other resources for utility repair and the like. Food, shelter, reconstruction materials and most other needs are regularly provided by the voluntary donations of churches and individuals from all around the country.

    And it’s reasonable to assume such private charity would increase if government backed off, as private charity and sacrifice has declined in every instance government care has been provided (retirement care, medical care, etc).

    I’m not convinced FEMA accomplishes anything which could not be accomplished without it. If it is unnecessary, then it is immoral because it requires involuntary support.

  6. Crow

    An example of how the Federal government can play a salutary role in offsetting the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster.

    The states and localities should not have to wait to raise the funds to deal with the immediate aftermath. The Federal government can ensure the funds are available to offset the massive cost of cleaning up this mess in the short term, while the local agencies take the lead in execution. 

  7. Trace
    Crow’s Nest: A perfect example of why there may be some Federal role in offsetting the immediate aftermath of a natural disaster. · 3 minutes ago

    CN: I can’t tell if you are being facetious or sincere. Many Wall Street firms’ lost revenue from the market being closed two days is included in that $20 billion total. Traders paid on commission will see their incomes hit as a result. Should those firms or those individual receive financial relief from FEMA for their lost earnings?

  8. Crow

    Trace: Of course individual firms should not be compensated for trading losses due to the markets being closed. That’s a cost of doing business in the stock market.

    I’m talking about the “major infrastructure” portion of the first paragraph, and the roads, subways, and bridges portions of the article further down, all of which contributes to this $20 billion in estimated damages at the moment (of course, we don’t yet know the final cost of this tragedy–and if it turns out to be less, that’s fantastic for everyone).

    The costs of repairing that infrastructure will be borne, to no small degree, by the cities and states affected, but it seems to me–like the cost of putting out a fire down the street–that government at various levels has a role to play here, and if the Federal government can play a salutary role in offsetting some of the damage to that infrastructure, it should.

  9. RandR

    Crow’s Nest: …if the Federal government can … it should.

    No, it shouldn’t! That’s how the federal government grew to today’s massive size. Our Constitution created limits to the federal government and we have abandoned them to our detriment.

  10. Crow

    Hi Richard: Selectively editing my comments and turning various qualifications, limitations, and principles that I laid forth into ellipses–including those laid forth in the very 1st post of this thread–in order to imply that I’ve argued something which I haven’t [namely that the Federal government should ignore the separation of powers and abandon federalism every time someone somewhere needs help for any reason] is a pretty low blow and not up to our standards around here.

  11. Crow

    There are basic and essential functions to which even most libertarian-leaning sorts can agree that government, at varying levels, ought to play a role.

    These include things like providing police forces for public safety, fire fighters to put out fires, militaries for national defense, and the building of roads and bridges. These are far more in keeping with our original purposes of establishing a government than a bloated welfare state is.

    Because I am a federalist, I believe that most of these functions can be best performed at the local level, though it hardly seems to me an egregious overreach for the FBI to exist at the Federal level to deal with interstate crimes (although it may, from time to time, have abused its powers. And although, at present, we have all too many Federal law enforcement agencies).

    Even still, under some circumstances, there are ways in which the Federal government can contribute to these local and State disaster relief efforts–sometimes via coordinating resources, sometimes merely by reassuring governors that funds will be there to help them rebuild infrastructure quickly, and sometimes just getting red tape out of the way by suspending–for example–the Davis Bacon Act.

  12. David Carroll

    Crows Nest:  there is no need for the federal government to have any role in these natural disasters.  None.  Not coordinating.  Not by “reassuring governor that funds will be there….”  Least of all that.  As for the federal government getting red tape out of the way…  I assume you are joking.

    The American people are generous.  In a disaster, the people will come to the aid for their fellow citizens.  Voluntarily.  No need for a Federal gun to be pointed at them to extract money in the form of tax dollars.

  13. flownover

    FEMA has grown very quickly and with that growth has come lots of confusion,  big gaps in training, and spending beyond anyone’s imagination. 

    The entire business of flood insurance was usurped by the Federal Govt last year. They are the only flood insurance in America now, although they are still represented by various property agents that doing the writing. 

    Mission creep . There were FEMA agents in the state of Vermont for 10 months after Irene. Fully staffed, a network of offices across the state. 10 months. 

    FEMA ignores local contractors and suppliers as they have national contracts in place for goods and services when they are needed. I imagine they ignore state and county officials with the same intransigence.

    When the Corps of Engineers people came into NW MO after the flood to survey the situation and make their endless reports, they found it impossible to get served at most rural small town cafes. The communities understood who could help them and who had hurt them.

  14. Sabrdance

    While I have some concerns about how explicitly spelled out these types of arrangements are in the Constitution, I’m not sure why a collective insurance system should be frowned upon.  It’s not like states could take out disaster insurance policies, and even if they could it wouldn’t actually help them in the moment.  Coordinating a multi-state disaster cleanup is exactly the kind of thing the Federal Government is intended to do.  Now, whether the Federal Government too frequently intervenes in what are actually local matters or state matters is another story, but for a multi-state hurricaine strike, this seems tailor made for the Feds to handle.

    I’d love to hear Professor Epstein on this, though.

  15. Crow
    David Carroll:The American people are generous.  In a disaster, the people will come to the aid for their fellow citizens.  Voluntarily.  No need for a Federal gun to be pointed at them to extract money in the form of tax dollars. · 12 minutes ago

    David: Only the Federal government can suspend the Davis Bacon Act. Repeal it, you say? Great–let’s retake Congress and the Executive and look a the most efficient way to do this.

    Flownover, meanwhile, is correct about much that FEMA does–it is one of the agencies that needs to be reined in.

    I have every faith that the American people will respond with extraordinary generosity, as they always do. And I expect that governors across the mid-Atlantic region to strive to do everything in their power to cooperate to clean up the damage from this disaster.

    I’m not sure why that’s an argument that there is absolutely “no role” for various agencies run at the Federal level to contribute. For example, say, the Coast Guard.

  16. Leslie Watkins

    Problem is, we don’t all share the same definition of what helping out means. Just look at the photo of the sign used in your post. Do we really need a federal agency to put up signs describing the obvious? (Signs aint cheap.) Does this kind of help lessen the willingness of people to take care of themselves? I think it does. Once New Orleanians realized they were on their own after Katrina, they actually started to get things done and to feel a little better about things. … Back in September 1996, after Hurricane Fran, the best immediate help for the thousands of us in central NC without power was bags of ice donated by a regional grocery store. And then, on day three, the sound of Asplundh trucks rumbling down the streets brought people out of our houses, as if to welcome the Allies. For those with longer lasting cleanup issues, a federal financial aid program might be something we all could get behind, knowing that each area has its own natural disaster scenarios, but evacuating and/or surviving without power for a week has to be the responsibility of individual citizens and towns.

  17. At The Rubicon

    I don’t recall FEMA being in the Constitution.  How were such disasters handled prior to the formation of FEMA? What were the problems with that?

    “Before you try to solve a problem, first understand it.”

  18. EThompson

    Here in the midst of this storm that has hit the elite where they live, is disaster relief an example of appropriate, even good federal government? 

    Absolutely not and as a resident of Florida, I would argue that the local counties and not the state should take responsibility for their own disaster relief. People make choices to live in coastal communities and if they can’t afford the insurance they need to do one of two things:

    1) Pay off your mortgage so you can cancel the astronomical costs of wind and flood protection. (As I have done.) If your home gets blown away, sell the land and move! Some of the worst-hit areas are typically trailer parks near the coastline in which residents have paid off their homes, but have no land to sell and no insurance. They simply made some high-risk and frankly, irresponsible choices.

    2) Move inland where insurance rates are far more affordable. People are not entitled to live on beachfront property and expect the govt to bail them out of catastrophe.

  19. Chris Johnson

    As usual, flownover is wise.

    FEMA had some federal purpose when conceived.  It was in the national interest to protect the productive farm lands that became that way, due to periodic flooding.  Massive floods ignore state boundaries and, especially in the days of more family farms, national assistance was helpful.

    Romney is correct that FEMA is, at least now, immoral.  People that grew up near the ocean never lived on the beaches, prior to the 1960s.  Back then, folks had beach houses, furnished with yardsale toss-offs.  Drywall and carpeting were unheard of.  Nobody expected beach places to be nice and most people built 100s of yards back from the water.  Now, with federal subsidies, we see palaces on the beach, and relatively minor weather events are national news.

    FEMA, as it is now, is immoral and I say that as someone that has made/makes a significant portion of my income from disaster relief.  Yes, I will be keeping an eye on my email and phone and will readily accept any worthwhile assignment, so as things stand, I participate in this immorality.

    The question is, should we all have to participate?

  20. Crow
    EThompson: 

    1) Pay off your mortgage so you can cancel the astronomical costs of wind and flood protection. (As I have done.) If your home gets blown away, sell the land and move! Some of the worst-hit areas are typically trailer parks near the coastline in which residents have paid off their homes, but have no land to sell and no insurance. They simply made some high-risk and frankly, irresponsible choices.

    2) Move inland where insurance rates are far more affordable. People are not entitledto live on beachfront property and expect the govt to bail them out of catastrophe. · 0 minutes ago

    Here we completely agree. It is the individual responsibility of every property owner to properly insure themselves and their property against damages that might be caused by fire/flooding/tornado/etc. That is not  “social” responsibility.

    Meantime, I’d also argue it’s perfectly sensible for local governments in such areas to purchase the necessary equipment, to create evacuation routes, and to use emergency broadcast systems to inform citizens that they ought to evacuate danger areas.

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