I read a very good article in The New Republic by federal circuit judge Richard A. Posner that makes some great points about recent events and the blame game.
When something goes wrong, we look for someone to blame, in the hope that by finding and punishing a culpable individual we can prevent a repetition. Sometimes this is little better than scapegoating, which is my reaction to the search for someone to blame for the failure to detect the September 11 plot or to discover that Saddam Hussein had abandoned his weapons of mass destruction. Intelligence failures, even ones that seem gross in retrospect (like the failure to anticipate Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor), are typically the result of the inherent limitations of intelligence rather than of culpable negligence. In the case of the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, however, it is easy to find culpable individuals at all levels of American government. This is fishing in a very well-stocked pond. Yet there is a danger that the excitement of the sport will cause systemic problems to be overlooked that may make the affixing of blame useless, except to vent indignation.
He outlines the many failures of all levels of government to prepare for catastrophe.
We have learned something important from the response to Hurricane Katrina. We have learned that four years after September 11, and two and a half years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the federal government had yet to devise an executable plan for responding to a catastrophic event in New Orleans--or, I imagine, in any city in the United States.
This seems incomprehensible. The planning that I have just described would not be costly. It would not step on any big political toes. The need for emergency planning was not only obvious (a series of articles in the Times-Picayune in 2002 had explained the risk of a disastrous flood in New Orleans in detail); it was explicitly acknowledged at every level of officialdom. So why did nothing happen?
He suggests that the government is busy with the wrong things.
Underlying the systemic problems that I have identified is the overextension of the federal government. It is trying to do too much. In the face of formidable challenges to the safety of the nation, of which we have had an abundance of recent warning signs--the latest being the threat of a lethal flu epidemic with which we apparently are not prepared to cope--the government has entangled itself in contentious, emotional, and (it seems to me) distinctly secondary issues. Matters such as abortion, fertility treatments, homosexual rights, affirmative action, religious displays on public property, capital punishment, voluntary euthanasia, and the proper treatment of people in vegetative states are not appropriate issues to engage the federal judiciary, or the other branches of the federal government. (All three branches managed to get involved in the Schiavo affair.) They are not worthy problems for national government in a federal system. The regulation of abortion only became a subject of heated contention when it was nationalized by the Supreme Court in Roe v.Wade.
Federal investigations proliferate. Judicial confirmation hearings become distended and absurd. The federal government continues its quixotic campaign of trying to prevent people from consuming an arbitrary subset of mind-altering drugs. It operates massive programs of re-distributing wealth arbitrarily, mainly to elderly people, many of whom could pay their own way quite nicely. It sponsors space travel, something the private sector can do perfectly adequately. The proper business of a national government is none of those things. It is public safety, which is gravely endangered, and which our government, and our political system, excited and distracted by a bewildering variety of second-order concerns, seems incapable of taking rational measures to protect.
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