Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2005 / 10 Elul,
FEMA versus Wal-Mart
Whatever later investigation may turn up about the mistakes of
the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in New Orleans, it is
unlikely to show the shrill charges of "racism" to be anything other than
reckless political rhetoric.
FEMA has bungled other emergencies where most of the victims
were white and in previous administrations. Like many government
bureaucracies, FEMA is an equal-opportunity bungler.
Many people who think that government is the answer to our
problems do not bother to check out the evidence. But it can be eye-opening
to compare how private businesses responded to hurricane Katrina and how
local, state and national governments responded.
Well before Katrina reached New Orleans, when it was still just
a tropical depression off the coast of Florida, Wal-Mart was rushing
electric generators, bottled water, and other emergency supplies to its
distribution centers along the Gulf coast.
Nor was Wal-Mart unique. Federal Express rushed 100 tons of
supplies into the stricken area after Katrina hit. State Farm Insurance sent
in a couple of thousand special agents to expedite disaster claims. Other
businesses scrambled to get their goods or services into the area.
Meanwhile, laws prevent the federal government from coming in
without the permission or a request from state or local authorities.
Unfortunately, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana are of
a different party than President Bush, which may have something to do with
their initial reluctance to have him come in and get political credit.
In the end, there was no political credit for anybody. There was
just finger-pointing and the blame game.
Politics is only one of a number of reasons why governments are
not the best handlers of many emergencies. Nor is the United States unique
in this respect.
A few years ago, more than a hundred Russian sailors paid with
their lives for their government's reluctance to accept an offer from the
U.S. government to have our navy rescue the crew of a Russian submarine that
was trapped under water. How would it look to the world if the American navy
could save Russians who could not be saved by their own navy?
Public outrage within Russia after that episode caused the
Russian government more recently to allow British naval experts to carry out
a rescue of Russian navy men trapped under water in another submarine.
Sheer bureaucracy can slow down emergency help. It is not
uncommon, when there are famines, for food shipments from other countries to
sit spoiling on the docks, while people are dying of starvation in the
interior, because the food is not being moved fast enough to reach them in
Back in 2001, refugees from the war in Afghanistan were dying of
starvation while aid workers were completing paperwork before distributing
food to them. During the tsunami in Southeast Asia this year, supplies of
food, medicine and other necessities from abroad piled up at airports.
In both emergency times and normal times, governments have
different incentives than private businesses. More fundamentally, human
beings will usually do more for their own benefit than for the benefit of
others. The desire to make money usually gets people in gear faster than the
desire to help others.
This is not true of everybody. Virtually nothing is true of
everybody. We rightly honor those who do their utmost to help others, in
part because not everyone acts that way.
It would undoubtedly be a better world if we all loved our
neighbors as we love ourselves and acted accordingly.
But in the real world that we actually live in, the question is
what set of incentives has the better track record for getting the job
done and especially getting the job done promptly when time can be the
difference between life and death.
The country does not have one dime more resources available when
those resources are channeled through government. The resources are just
handled less effectively by government and dispensed in an indiscriminate
way that encourages people to continue locating in the known path of
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