Apparently We’re Helpless without Big Government

According to the New York Times big storms, like the ones that just hammered the east coast, require big government:

Most Americans have never heard of the National Response Coordination Center, but they’re lucky it exists on days of lethal winds and flood tides. The center is the war room of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, where officials gather to decide where rescuers should go, where drinking water should be shipped, and how to assist hospitals that have to evacuate.
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Disaster coordination is one of the most vital functions of “big government,” which is why Mitt Romney wants to eliminate it.

Unsurprisingly this article is a thinly veiled exploitation piece meant to attack Romney while jacking off Obama. What I want to address is the claim that natural disasters require a big government. Consider the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for a moment. Supposedly this single organization has enough knowledge, foresight, and resources to coordinate and supply disaster relief efforts throughout the country. Without them, if the New York Times is to believed, it would be impossible for areas to recover from major disasters.

Let’s consider resources for a moment. As a federal agency FEMA must supply whatever resources are necessary to help with disaster relief throughout the entire country. Being a large country the number of resources necessary is absolutely mind boggling. Furthermore different regions face different potential disasters and therefore need different resources. Damage caused by tidal waves is different than damage caused by tornadoes and therefore the resources required to recover from a tidal wave are different than the resources necessary to recover from a tornado. Yet disasters such as tidal waves will not affect interior states and tornadoes are far less likely to occur in coastal states.

Resources include everything from drinking water to temporary shelter to specialized knowledge. The last resources, specialized knowledge, is the most important because without it there is no way to effectively determine the other resources needed for disaster relief. Who is more likely to know what is needed when a tornado touches down and destroys a vast section of a Midwestern town: a bureaucrat sitting in Washington DC that has likely never experienced a tornado or residents living in the affected Midwestern town that have dealt with tornadoes before? In all likelihood it will be the latter group.

Stocking FEMA with resources necessary takes resources form somewhere else. Scarcity is a fact of life and the government, no matter how badly it wants to, cannot overcome it. The resources sent to FEMA come from other parts of the country meaning each individual state has less resources available to prepare for local disasters than they would if FEMA didn’t exist. Wyoming would have more free resources to invest in preparing for coal mine collapses while Texas would have more free resources to invest in preparing for oil fires if they weren’t sending resources to FEMA.

There is also no guarantee that resources taken by FEMA will be distributed to areas affected by a disaster. FEMA only enters the equation when the federal government declares a disaster. When floods struck Duluth, Minnesota governor Dayton requested FEMA provide assistance, a request that FEMA denied:

On July 19, Governor Dayton requested individual assistance for home and business owners affected by June’s one-in-a-lifetime Duluth-area flood.

Today, FEMA denied Dayton’s request, and the governor is none too happy about it. “The Governor is very disappointed in FEMA’s decision, and is currently working with state agencies to explore next steps,” says a release from spokesman Bob Hume.

Minnesota, like every other state, has sent resources to FEMA. When storms hit and devastated Duluth FEMA refused to release its resources. Individuals working on disaster relief in Duluth found themselves with fewer resources than would have been available if FEMA wasn’t syphoning them. Not only are resources taken from localities and given to FEMA but there is no guarantee those resources will ever be made available.

Individuals are also able to prepare for natural disasters. By stocking nonperishable foods, generators and fuel, blankets, drinking water, and medical supplies an individual can prepare themselves for surviving the disruptions caused by natural disasters. By taking advantage of division of labor one individual in a community can focus on stocking food while another can focus on ensuring available shelter. Working together directly individuals can prepare necessary supplies because they have access to the sole source of specialized knowledge regarding each person’s personal needs. FEMA, sitting off in Washington DC, has no way of knowing what your or I need when a disaster strikes. It’s impossible to know the needs of another individual, especially when you’ve never met them.

Natural disasters don’t require big government. In fact big government can actually be extremely detrimental to disaster relief.