Stop treating government like God

First Published: 2006-01-05

The media lately have grilled government officials about their responses to natural disasters — from the South Asian tsunami to the Gulf Coast hurricanes to the recent earthquakes in Pakistan and India. Media watchdogs want to know what government will do to relieve suffering, how it will rebuild and compensate victims, and what it will do to prevent problems in the future.

Well, we can stop this cat-and-mouse game and state the bottom line: Government officials are mere mortals. They are not omnipotent.

It is true that government officials often create the expectation that they will perform in a way that would remind everyone of their God-like power. That's how they get re-elected, and how bureaucracies survive and expand. Elected officials, in particular, want us to believe they will make us safe and secure in a world without risk. After the government inevitably fails to live up to these expectations, elected officials and bureaucrats promise to learn from the mistake and eradicate the problem in the future. Again.

Our expectations for the performance of public officials rise higher and higher, and they inevitably disappoint. Our disgust may be understandable but it is disproportionate. But what's being missed here are the precise reasons for the discrepancy between public failures and private successes.

• Incentives. Too often, government agencies are more concerned about self-preservation than taking risks to meet the demands of an emergency. Private charities, such as the Salvation Army, are ruled by a service ethic in which employees make sacrifices to help others. The motivation is often religious.

• Knowledge. We cannot expect distant bureaucracies to administer a crisis situation from the comfort of their offices. They do not know the local conditions — a fact that was made all too clear in the early days following Hurricane Katrina. Private efforts are fueled by a community approach. Government bureaucracies are hobbled by centralization and top-down management structures.

• Production. Private enterprise was remarkably generous at every level, bringing goods, generators and services, and donating hundreds of millions of dollars worth of trucks, boats, shelters, food, clothing and much more. Government, which produces primarily law and regulations, is not equipped to do this.

• Experience. Government agencies are not socialized in the habit of learning from or even acknowledging error. The culture of both private charities and businesses are much more oriented toward improvement.

• Voluntarism. The impulse to give and help sacrificially is rooted in will, volition and choice. Funding for private relief efforts is collected (for the most part) by calling on people to give voluntarily. Many, if not most, of those working with these organizations are volunteers, not professionals.

This last point is the most telling. Coercion and force are necessary to enforce laws and keep the peace. But coercion is not the best approach to humanitarian assistance. That's why governments are pretty good at administering force, but not so good on charity and humanitarian intervention. You can't force people to become angels of mercy.

Many people have been impressed at the response by private charities and have suggested that government subsidize them. This isn't a good idea. Government subsidies make nonprofit groups less like private organizations and more like public agencies.

We expect too much of government. By all means, hold elected officials and government bureaucrats accountable. But our best hope in times of crisis comes from private organizations that are linked to the society they serve.

Father Robert Sirico is president of the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty in Grand Rapids.

Printed in The Detroit News, October 15, 2005.

Reprinted with the kind permission of The Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.

The views expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily those of the Nassau Institute (which has no corporate view), or its Advisers or Directors.

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