The wind and rain from Hurricane Sandy hadn't even stopped before some people argued that the storm made the case against reducing the size of the federal government or giving states more say in their affairs. The federal response to a crisis became the proxy for big government in all its bureaucratic glory. Cutting government, we were meant to understand, means letting Sandy's victims fend for themselves.
This is the classic straw-man gambit. To argue in favor of smaller or less costly government is not to demand no government at all. Opposition to, say, the federal government granting $505,000 to a thriving company that makes pet toothpaste and shampoo doesn't lead inexorably to opposing disaster relief. Calls for reforming a Medicare program that is at least $38 trillion in debt aren't tantamount to saying that the storm-stricken people of New York and New Jersey should be on their own.
An old trick of governments at all levels is to respond to the prospect of spending cuts by announcing that they will lay off teachers and firefighters first. By targeting the most essential services, they try to assure that public outcry will keep the tax dollars flowing. Equating disaster relief from the Federal Emergency Management Agency with big government and big spending in general represents the same old scam.
The federal government spent $10 billion on disaster relief last year. That amounts to roughly 0.002% of federal spending. It also suggests that an awful lot of federal spending could be cut before we put FEMA under the knife. One might even argue that a smaller, leaner and more efficient government could better offer services such as disaster relief. A government that tries to do everything is liable to do nothing particularly well.
Mitt Romney is being attacked in some quarters because he suggested in a 2011 debate that some federal disaster-relief functions might be shifted to the states. Critics claim that this means he simply doesn't care about people affected by disaster—that he is putting dollars and ideology before people's lives. But might not a more locally focused disaster-relief program make sense?
After all, much of the federal government's relief efforts simply amount to shifting funds from one part of the country to another and back again. Yesterday New York paid for assistance to Louisiana; today Louisiana pays for assistance to New York. Is that necessarily the most efficient way to accomplish our goals?
FEMA essentially represents a centralized "command and control" approach to disaster relief. It presumes that only the experts in Washington—not state and local officials, and certainly not private charities—know best how to respond to local needs and conditions.
In the wake of Katrina and other disasters, there have been numerous stories of federal officials rejecting offers of assistance—from Coca-Cola KO -1.48% offering to send water, for example, or private organizations trying to deliver hospital supplies—because those offers didn't fit neatly into the bureaucratic script. Initial indications do suggest that with Hurricane Sandy, federal, state and local coordination has been better. But that doesn't argue against giving more authority, and more responsibility, to those actually in the affected areas.
The bottom line: Big government is seldom the same as effective government. That applies as much to disaster relief as to anything else.