The Lessons of Isaac and Katrina

As Hurricane Isaac approaches on Hurricane Katrina's anniversary, let's reflect on what we should expect government to do.

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This fall's elections are in large part a referendum on the role of government in people's lives. And in choosing Tampa, Fla., for its national convention venue, Republicans have, deliberately or not, put the question before voters and elected officials at a hurricane-force level.

Forget, for a minute, the logistical wisdom of planning a massive meeting in a hurricane zone right smack in the middle of hurricane season. The fact that the convention—and Isaac, a tropical storm nearing hurricane strength as it approaches the United States—comes on the seventh anniversary or Hurricane Katrina is a more notable point.

[Photos: Isaac Storms Gulf]

Katrina has become short-hand for government ineptitude. The Bush administration was slow to respond, and the recovery was also plagued with problems and inefficiencies. The memory of George W. Bush telling his FEMA chairman that "you're doing a great job, Brownie," even as people were dying in the water and enduring unimaginable conditions at a sports stadium used for flood victims still evokes a chill.

But what if there had been no FEMA at all? What if government bureaucracy had not been created and funded to help Americans through exactly this sort of crisis? Those who cry for miniscule government and almost nonexistent taxes often forget that this is when government is desperately needed. Private industry is not going to step in and save people from drowning, or help them rebuild their homes without a solid profit. This is why government exists, to provide order and to serve the public good when there is no profit motive to do so. The same Republicans who decry the size of government are lined up for federal disaster aid as Isaac approaches.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the 2012 campaign.]

There are lessons from Katrina that serve both sides of the argument. Government can perform poorly, and citizens should not tolerate ineptitude being committed with their tax dollars. But government is also the last resort—sometimes the only resort—in a time of crisis.

So if Isaac causes pain and damage, we have every right to expect that the Obama administration responds quickly and competently. And Americans should expect to pay for it.

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