Thursday, September 15, 2005

Bigger Is Not Always Better

Last night, I heard a radio program on which host Charley Jones was posing the question, "What have you learned from Katrina?" I don't know that I've learned anything new, but it definitely reinforced something I already believed in most cases: Bureaucracy bad. Individuals good.

I've noted my disdain for bureaucracy in a previous post, and little that's happened with regard to Katrina has modified my position one iota. Some of the more ridiculous things were outlined this week in a column by Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post:
But while it is true that the government's relief effort looks set to dwarf anything it has tried before, consider what the actual experience of the disaster has already been -- not theoretically, not on paper, but in practice. Listen, for example, to volunteers who prepared 92 boats to help evacuate people from the rooftops of New Orleans. They were ultimately kept out by Federal Emergency Management Agency bureaucrats because, among other things, they didn't have life preservers. Or listen to the volunteers who organized 100 doctors to treat 400 sick people at a converted Baton Rouge warehouse -- until they, too, were told by the government to shut down, reopen and then shut down again. Or to the hundreds of firefighters who, according to the New York Times, responded to a nationwide call for help and were then "held by the federal agency in Atlanta for days of training on community relations and sexual harassment," while women were raped and lives were lost in New Orleans. Compare their frustration to the joy experienced by 8-year-olds across the country, washing cars for the Red Cross.
You see, it's things like this that show the pointlessness of a big, bloated bureaucratic agency like the ones so often found in government. When "the rules" become the be-all and end-all and actually get in the way of people trying to help other people, then something needs to change. Now.

Applebaum may not share my urgency, but she hopes the right lessons are learned from all this:
I'm not saying anything radical here: I'm not calling for the abolition of FEMA, and I certainly think there's a role for government in disaster and evacuation planning. But it is true that the worst failures of the past two weeks have been big government failures. The biggest successes, by contrast, have come out of this country's incredibly vibrant, amazingly diverse and fantastically generous civil society. Sooner or later, it will be impossible not to draw political lessons from that paradox.
I'm in complete agreement with those who are avoiding the whole "blame game" thing at this point in time, because the priority right now is still rescuing people and rebuilding cities. But if the lumbering elephant of government bureaucracy is going to respond in a, well, elephantine manner, it's great to know that there are lots of "little folks" here in America who are ready, willing and able to pitch in and take up the slack.

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