Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina and federalism

Mickey Kaus argues that federalism is partially to blame for the Katrina fiasco. I think the moral of the story is actually that we need more federalism, not less. My gut response to Kaus' claims was, you want to give those incompetents at FEMA more power!? Arguing more analytically, the federal government's comparative advantage is that of size; it can bring massive resources to bear. But larger organizations also tend to do things more slowly: they have more rules and procedures to follow, chains of command are longer, logistical problems are greater, and so on. State and especially local governments will always have the potential to respond much more quickly to a disaster. Also, no amount of planning, studies, commmissions, and practice simulations will ever make federal officials as knowledgable as local officials about local details when it comes to deciding what precisely needs to be done in a disaster. Finally, as John Tierney points out, locals have the strongest incentives to take measures to prevent disasters in the first place. As Tierney put it, "Members of Congress will always have higher priorities than paying for levees in someone else's state." When there's over $2 trillion being doled out, the financial temptation to rely on the federal government is extreme. However, the past week has shown us the ugly side of federal dependence.

Of course, local governments are no panacea. They can and do make stupid decisions, even when they should know better. For individual citizens, preparing for a disaster should mean preparing for the contingency that there will be no government help whatsoever.

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