By Jonathan Tobin
Democrats are hoping that the fact that the federal government is not being seen as having failed in its responsibilities during Hurricane Sandy will boost President Obama’s re-election chances. It’s not clear that any action on the president’s part was exceptional or out of the ordinary but, as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was right to point out, Washington didn’t drop the ball during the storm. I’m skeptical whether that will change any votes, but there is a more interesting argument that arises from the hurricane that is worth pondering. Liberals hope that the fact that government is necessary to rescue and aid efforts will be understood as more than a good photo op for the president. They hope it will be interpreted as proof of the folly of conservative principles.
According to this point of view, the need for a strong government able to save us from natural disaster trumps any concern about the size or cost of the government. Just as President Obama argued this past summer, liberals tend to think no one builds his or her own business or has success without the help of government. But the storm seems to have broadened that dubious point to one that would damn any concerns about the leviathan in Washington, since in some instances we need it. This is both poor logic and bad policy.
It suits liberals to paint conservatives as hostile to any sort of governmental action, but the dispute between them is not about whether we should have a government but whether there should be reasonable limits on its power.
The preamble to the Constitution states very clearly that the purpose of the United States is to, among other things, “provide for the common defense.” Neither individual citizens nor the states could effectively defend the country against foreign foes. Nor could they necessarily build defenses or the sort of harbor fortifications and that would secure the coast against natural disasters. Yet that tells us nothing about whether Washington power grabs in virtually every sector of society and business is justified.
No one, other than the most radical libertarians, wish to dispense with government. Using the armed forces and other federal agencies to deal with a hurricane is one thing. But it provides no justification for the vast expansion of the federal bureaucracy or the intrusion into the free market that other liberal projects entail. The fact that we all agree we need an Army, a Navy, an Air Force, the Coast Guard and the U.S. Marines says nothing about whether we also need ObamaCare.
The genius of the U.S. Constitution is that it set firm limits on government power. Powers not specifically delegated to the federal government were given to the states, and both were constrained from infringing on the liberty of citizens. In the last century, those limits have been tested and then often overrun in the cause of doing what liberals thought was good. But in the last generation we have seen that not only have some of these liberal projects enlarged the government to the breaking point, they have also hurt as many if not more people than they helped. The justification for ObamaCare is much like many of those we have heard in the past for the worst excesses of the welfare state. These points may be debated in good faith, but the existence of a federal apparatus for national security and for emergency relief has nothing to do with it.
It may well be that many of the duties of FEMA could be successfully devolved upon the states, especially when there is overlap. That, too, is a point that may be disputed. But there can be no dispute about the fact that a hurricane tells us nothing about the great divide between the left and the right about the expansion of government. Anyone who says it does is merely demonstrating disinterest in the Constitution or in serious discussion of a profound philosophical issue.