Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Common sense

Reading Arnold Kling's article on planning and improvisation in government reminded me of the countless stories I read about people trying to help respond to Hurricane Katrina, but being slowed or even completely prevented from helping by red tape. Based on my nonrandom data sample, FEMA was the most detrimental enforcer of this red tape. One would hope that, with a national catastrophe being broadcast to the nation (and the world) in real time, officials would have the common sense to ignore impractical rules. For me, this was not merely a hope, but a naive expectation of which events have disabused me. I've read of bureaucrats apparently more worried about being sued than about saving lives.

I really don't understand this phenomenon. Do we not already have Good Samaritan laws? Perhaps the President should have gone on TV and said, "To the many government workers responding to this crisis, I urge you not to let red tape get in your way or in the way of private citizens trying to help. We'll sort out the legal niceties later, with a long list of presidential pardons if necessary." Or is this simply a cultural problem inherent to bureaucracies, a problem that can only be mitigated by reducing the role of bureaucracies and complicated laws?

One can take things too far, and let emergency become lawless government become tyranny. I certainly don't want Congress to pass a law instructing the President to do "whatever is necessary in the event of an emergency." Hard cases make bad law. What is needed is not a new law, or a new organizational chart, but rather an unwritten heuristic--in other words, common sense--about when a rule is important, and when it is not. Perhaps there's a long-term way to instill more common sense in our bureaucrats, but I have no idea what it is. Obviously, it also would be useful to have fewer regulations in the first place, but there are structural political reasons why this is very hard to achieve. In the short term (i.e., Hurricane Rita), I can only hope that FEMA does more good than harm.


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