When we liberated Iraq and its citizens went on a spree, looting and shooting in the streets of Baghdad, some of us chastised them for squandering their opportunity for democracy and the rule of law. Then the Great Teacher sent us a hurricane and, Lo!, Americans themselves ran amok in the streets of New Orleans. It was a warning against hubris and a reminder that the differences between Us and Them may not be so great after all.
Government failed notoriously to respond to the hurricane, but at once the cry went up for more government. Down with Bush's tax cuts! More money into the government sieve! Republican and Democrat politicians fell over one another promising more, more, more. None of them showed much interest in rethinking the geographical viability of New Orleans, in reforming risky building and permissive insurance practices, or in considering the inherent inefficiency of governmental agencies.
The real puzzler was why anyone was surprised. SNAFU, the acronym that mocks military "organization," indicates that it's normal for things to be "all fouled up." Bureaucracies can't act swiftly, decisively, imaginatively because they're rule bound and introspective. Success in the bureaucratic lexicon translates as self-preservation. Covering one's rear end is the principal task of a bureaucrat. That's what all the files and reams of paperwork are about. If something goes wrong, refer to Section 97, Article iii in the Operations Manual where it says that no one is accountable. "Situation normal - all fouled up."
This isn't to impugn bureaucrats but to state a fundamental fact of bureaucracies. All of them eventually evolve into self-perpetuating, sclerotic leviathans devoted to turf battles, obsessed with perks, averse to risk-taking and resistant to reform. Somehow, in spite of their blatant and endless record of failures, we retain a blind faith in bureaucratic institutions and their ability to eliminate the discomforts of existence and deliver us to a state of perpetual bliss.
I read somewhere a list of the government agencies hovering over the wreckage of New Orleans: FEMA, DHS, EPA, HHS, SBA, HUD. How much of the money that gets funneled through these crony-crowded hives of ineptness will end up in actual labor and materials to rebuild the city? The Office of Homeland Security has been described as a maze of fiefdoms involving 88 different committees. How secure does that make you feel?
NaÃive people were outraged that the head of FEMA was an unqualified political appointee with a background in show horses. Do they imagine this appointment was anomalous? What do they think politics and government is all about?
Whenever we blame the "government" or cry out for its help, we ought to remember the words of Frederic Bastiat, who said, "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else." This is a worthy saying because it convicts all of us, from corporations begging for subsidies to deadbeats clamoring for handouts.
Rich and poor, we're all at the trough and our ideologies are only masks that cover our selfish interests and desires. Those who stand to benefit from government spending, think taxes are beautiful and want the government to grow. Those whose income comes from the private sector think that the government is a pickpocket and a spendthrift - except when it gives them a break.
Whenever we appeal to government to save us from ourselves, we ought to remember that there is no free lunch, that every bill, ordinance, regulation, tax and subsidy has tradeoff costs and unintended consequences. Higher taxes mean less economic growth, shrinking resources to pay for the things we want and ultimately a lower standard of living for us all.
Above all, we should remember that the government is a reflection of us - of our narcissism, laziness, sense of entitlement and victimhood, our belief in magic charms and demons and in rights without responsibilities.
We should think twice before inviting the government to micro-manage our lives. The more problems we can solve on our own initiatives, the stronger and healthier we'll be. It's going to take more than a new face in the White House to change what we don't like about America. If we want change, we must change ourselves.