Over the past week, the United States government has proven incapable of providing relief to citizens in desperate need. The consequences were immediate and devastating for thousands of residents of New Orleans and other affected areas. For days, people were trapped in hellish conditions, without food, water, medicine, or sanitation. It seems certain that thousands of people died.
When disasters like Hurricane Katrina occur, Americans naturally look to the federal government for help. This is not surprising. The federal government has a budget of more than one trillion dollars. It has more than one million employees. It has an agency dedicated to emergency management. It is far bigger and has far more resources than state and local governments. It is natural that Americans expect the federal government to be the entity most capable of responding to the worst crises, including disasters like Katrina.
Sadly, those in charge -- our supposed leaders -- do not seem to understand why the federal government is essential. For the past quarter century, conservatives have hypocritically damned the federal government, even as they presided over it for most of those years. Ronald Reagan criticized wasteful federal spending, even as spending and deficits ballooned during his administrations. George W. Bush brought more of the same—denouncing the federal government as a problem to be solved by reduced spending (again, even as spending and deficits increased on his watch). This critique has given the Republican party a focus and singlemindedness Democrats have lacked. It is easy to say what the Republicans have stood for in recent decades; limited federal government has been the cornerstone of their philosophy.
The Democratic heirs to FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society have been unable to deliver an effective rejoinder to the conservative critique of national government. In 1984, Walter Mondale’s attempt to defend the Democratic vision of government became associated only with higher taxes. A decade later, Bill Clinton famously conceded that the era of big government had ended. Presidential standard bearers Al Gore and John Kerry defanged their rhetoric in order to avoid sounding like big government types.
A question, glaringly unasked over the past quarter century, has forced itself into the national consciousness over the past week: why exactly do we need the United States government? Conservative rhetoric suggested that government was more a problem than a solution, an obstacle to be removed from the path of the free market system. Of course, even conservatives did not advocate dismantling the entire government. For one thing, lavish military spending marked Republican administrations. Beyond the military, however, it was unclear that conservatives saw any part of the federal government as essential. They endorsed states’ rights at almost every turn (though not when it came to gay marriage or medical marijuana). In opposition, Democrats were unable to articulate why we need federal government.
In the flooded streets of New Orleans, we finally have a clear, resounding answer. State and city authorities were first unable to muster the resources needed to evacuate hundreds of thousands of people, then to care for and protect those left behind. Ordinary citizens stuck in the city looked, in vain, to the federal government for help. On television, they asked how the United States could deliver aid to other countries and fight a war overseas in Iraq while forsaking its own citizens.
This is an “emperor has no clothes” moment. Twenty five years of Republican rhetoric have been stripped naked. Criticizing big government sounded good when all it seemed to mean was lower taxes. But, it turns out, those taxes pay for something, and reduced spending can have very real consequences. The Bush administration cut funding for strengthening the levees in New Orleans. That decision had a human cost not factored into the budget calculus.
It is time to ask basic questions about government, questions that were asked when this country was founded, but questions that need to be asked again, after years of assault on the concept of national government. Why do we have a government at all? Why did we form a national government? Government, at its essence, means civilization. We have government for the same reason cavemen banded together into tribes, and the people of the Fertile Crescent formed cities. Government exists to make life better, less dangerous, more sane. It accomplishes collective tasks that would overwhelm individuals. A national government exists for the same reasons, and can marshal far greater resources than smaller state or local entities, taking advantage of economies of scale and a larger tax base.
The country’s founders made their reasons for forming a national government explicit in the preamble to the United States Constitution: “We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
During the past week, the United States government utterly failed to insure domestic tranquility or to promote the general welfare in New Orleans. After this failure, we must reexamine all of the platitudes that have become dogma over the past quarter century: that government is a problem to be reined in, not a resource; that the private sector can be counted on to fill in gaps unaddressed by government; that taxes may only be lowered, never raised; that private sector principles should be applied to the public sector. When searching for something good that could come out of this national tragedy, President Bush clumsily looked forward to the reconstruction of Trent Lott’s house in Mississippi. If we really want to hope for something good born from tragedy, we should reimagine, as our forebears once did, our national government as a force for good that will be there when its desperate citizens cry out for help.
Chris Edelson is a civil rights attorney in New York City.