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Do natural disasters justify big government?

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When disasters strike – as they have repeatedly across the transatlantic sphere this season – government exercises its most essential function: saving lives. Do these heroic actions validate the ongoing intervention of the federal government into local affairs?

This hurricane season has given federal officers too many opportunities to provide this service. Hurricanes Harvey, Irene, and Maria tore across the countryside in violent succession. Most recently, Hurricane Ophelia’s 100 mph winds killed three people in the Republic of Ireland and inflicted an estimated £1 billion of damage. Thousands are still without power, and a handful lack water.

“The federal government has an important role in disaster relief. This role does not violate the principle of subsidiarity,” writes Steve Stapleton in a new essay for Religion & Liberty Transatlantic, titled, “Hurricanes, heroism, and ripples in a pond.” 

“Following a disaster, you don’t need local input to know that search-and-rescue is critical and that the area needs safe drinking water, ready-to-eat meals, clothing, blankets, baby diapers, etc.,” he explains. “But beyond relief, the principle of subsidiarity can provide a framework to limit the role of the government.”

He contrasts the U.S. Coast Guard’s immediate, lifesaving actions in 2005 during Hurricane Katrina with the federal government’s ongoing management of the disaster. The Coast Guard rescued more people in a matter of days than it did in a typical year. Then the federal government began resettling displaced residents:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit report estimated that improper and fraudulent payments following Katrina were between $600 million to $1.6 billion. The New York Times reported on June 27, 2006, that Katrina “produced one of the most extraordinary displays of scams, schemes, and stupefying bureaucratic bungles in modern history, costing taxpayers up to $2 billion.”

State and national governments, which are best equipped to deal with overwhelming emergencies, excel at providing immediate assistance to those in need. Requiring every local government to procure and deploy enough emergency resources for a catastrophic disaster – helicopters, teams of rescue boats, etc. – would be inefficient to the point of ludicrous. But expecting leaders at state or national levels of authority to adequately manage the diverse, kaleidoscopic problems of every county, city, and village square is no less unrealistic.

Subsidiarity – which Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos defined as “a kind of ecclesiastical federalism” in her keynote speech at the Acton Institute’s annual dinner last week – holds that problems should be solved by the lowest possible level of authority. Stapleton writes:

Seeking solutions to our social and political challenges should radiate outward from the family, to the extended family, to the community (including the church community), to the city or county, to the state, and lastly to the federal level. This progression is analogous to the ripples in a pond, starting with the smallest unit of society, the family, at the center.

Subsidiarity works, because each ripple is connected to the next. The closer the local connection, the more likely the agent will be to show ownership and that accountability will be sustained. Subsidiarity works, because freedom is maximized when authority is exercised via soft power within the culture. When people look to the government to solve problems as a first resort, behavior is enforced via the fist of the state, and citizens’ good habits of moral decision making are lost.

Read his full essay here.

(Photo credit: U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Scott D. Rady rescues a pregnant woman during Hurricane Katrina. Public domain.)

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Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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