We hear the same bit after every disaster: there are no libertarians in a [name your catastrophe]. A hurricane like Katrina, or Sandy, or Harvey; floods, fires, and famines; any kind of natural disaster seems to make us grateful that our strong, protective government stands by to help us out of trouble. I don’t know about you, but all I see everywhere I look is a sh_tshow of over-confident, incompetent, power-grabbing, control freaks who do not know what the f_ck they should do, other than try to look good.
I don’t want to ridicule the experts and public servants who stand up behind Trump when he goes on television to unload his latest brain dump. Pity them. They don’t get to pick their boss. They try. They are not out for power or image. But let me ask you, what can explain the refusal of engineers in New Orleans to fortify the levees that gave way during Katrina? Laziness? Inertia? Callousness? Or what can explain the FDA’s refusal, even now, to permit unregulated, widespread testing for COVID-19? Its own organizational habits take precedence over public health or public safety.
When a disaster hits, it seems that every possible thing that can go wrong, does go wrong. Do you know why? Because central control mechanisms do not solve these sorts of problems. To take a simple example: if fresh drinking water is a problem during a flood, do you know what the state does? It arrests so-called price gougers, who load up a truck with bottled water, and deliver it to people who need it. Police say no, no, no, off to jail you go. We will ship bottled water for free from our empty warehouse. By the time you get it, you’ll be nearly dead from dehydration, but at least you will not overpay for your drinking water.
Leaders show compassion for people who suffer, encouragement when people need hope.
You could do an analysis of all the ways government has helped or hindered our response to the current pandemic. I’ll wager with a lot of confidence that when it helps, it gets out of the way. When it hinders, it exerts its central control mechanisms. It interferes with local ingenuity, leadership, and community self-help.
Leaders show compassion for people who suffer, encouragement when people need hope. Leaders who understand their role create conditions for high morale. They solve problems to help those who look to them. They think about resources required to get their people out of trouble.
Yet what happens to the commanding officer of the USS THEODORE ROOSEVELT when he tries to obtain treatment for stricken sailors on his ship? The Secretary of the Navy fires him. Skipper of the Grand Princess pleaded for permission to come into port, to obtain care for his passengers. No can do. Stay at sea. Perhaps you want to visit your elderly parent in a nursing home or other care facility, dying of the current contagion, or of another illness. Forget it, stay away. Our lockdown protocols say you can’t come in, for any reason. Your parent dies alone.
A gloating, I-told-you-so, now-aren’t-you-thankful rejoinder, “Where are all the libertarians now?,” does not help. It does not change anyone’s mind about government’s efficacy or leadership in the we’ll-help-you-out department. No matter how many disaster responses government screws up, a core of loyalists will find a way to cast its efforts as successful. Yet those who expect government to help them will always be disappointed, unless of course you are a crony who routinely receives government help all the time, disaster or no.
Perhaps we believe earthly powers offer the most protection we will ever find.
People see what they want to see. I know I overlook a lot of good public servants when I ridicule government as I do. I want to focus attention on its effects as an organization, not on individuals who work for it. Smug comments about government’s power to help have faith that the state’s aims and effects are beneficent. They want to believe government’s PR, like young men who depart for to the latest war, then learn when they arrive that Uncle Sam duped them again.
Most certainly, people’s views about government seem most resistant to change, almost as deeply held as views about religion. We want to think well of our leaders. We want them to act with laudable motives. I do not understand why we look to public authorities to help us. These officials pretend to leadership so they can control us, and to advance their own interests. Perhaps we believe earthly powers offer the most protection we will ever find.