The Disaster of the State

Well, once again Mother Nature has reared her ugly head (and a few mixed metaphors along the way,) leaving one of America’s great cities under several feet of water.  Hurricane Harvey is a storm whose aftermath has included almost unprecedented rainfall totals and unimaginable personal tragedy.  Surely this is an instance where our national government is needed to provide funds and people for rescue, relief, recovery and rebuilding? Most certainly, this is a time to call on police, fire and emergency personnel as well as the military to help save lives and give whatever aid and comfort possible.  It is also time to recognize the role of government policy in making such disasters worse than they need to be.

The single biggest culprit in this is federal flood insurance.  For years, wise men avoided building homes in flood plains and other flood prone areas.  Furthermore, banks are unwilling to finance construction in such areas and private insurance companies either refuse to cover flood damage or only at costs that are prohibitive.  But, of course, if the government would just step in, that wouldn’t be a problem.  Now everyone wins.  Until the inevitable happens.  And then the people who bought homes in those areas find themselves in a terrible situation.  

That being the case, too often government policy after natural disasters has been to simply rebuild in the exact same place, exposing the next generation to the same risks as the last.  Given what we now know, any monies provided for reconstruction should only given to those who agree to relocate to higher ground.  Of course this would simply not happen in the private marketplace as few people would be willing or able to assume the risk.  

But beyond that, natural disasters actually emphasize the ineffectiveness of much government action.  Precisely at a time when response needs to be fast, nimble and decentralized, we introduce a huge bureaucracy which is slow, clumsy and, well, bureaucratic.  Frequently private efforts at rescue and relief are more successful and at a fraction of the cost.  And that’s not because the individuals are more capable but because they are not encumbered by the rules and regulations that public employees face.

So, this time, in addition to doing everything we can to help our fellow citizens survive this terrible time, let’s reflect on how we can change some of the policies that, instead of limiting the damage caused by natural disasters, actually make them far worse.  The best way to help victims of flooding is to reduce the number of such victims in the first place.  Not only will those changes save lives but also valuable resources.

Thanks again for following this blog.  Hope life treats you well this week and we’ll see you back here on Friday!


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