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We all lose when entitlement wins

By Trevor Bothwell
web posted September 12, 2005

If we're lucky, the one positive outcome of Hurricane Katrina will be an overwhelming realization by Americans that we should not entrust our welfare to the state. The great irony associated with the current finger-pointing in the wake of Katrina's destruction is that many of the people so outraged by government dysfunction at the local, state, and federal levels will nevertheless fail to learn that it's unwise to expect politicians and bureaucrats to solve all our problems.

Nothing illustrates more our over-reliance on the federal government than those who condemn President Bush in this disaster. Despite the inadequacies of the federal response to Katrina, only the naïve could expect federal authorities -- not to mention a U.S. president -- to possess the knowledge required for carrying out locale-specific duties that we elect mayors and governors to undertake.

To be sure, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Mayor Ray Nagin and Gov. Kathleen Blanco were tragically incompetent in managing New Orleans's emergency management plan, from waiting too long to order a mandatory evacuation of the city to failing to stockpile at least a few days' worth of food, water, and portable toilets in the Superdome and other areas of last resort. And who by now hasn't heard of Terry Ebbert's failure to utilize hundreds of the city's buses to transport citizens to safety prior to Katrina's arrival? It is this collective mismanagement and resulting effort to shift culpability that primarily has initiated this "Bush is to blame" mantra.

Opponents of the Bush administration complain that there weren't enough National Guard troops deployed to New Orleans , though they hesitate to admit that Mayor Nagin overlooked for too long the looting that was contributing to his city's spiral into chaos. Many in the media also refuse to headline the fact that it was the president who prompted the eventual mandatory evacuation of New Orleans on Sunday, August 28. Bush detractors also conveniently disregard the fact that the president declared a state of emergency in Louisiana and authorized federal aid under this declaration on August 27. And on Sept. 2 his administration requested federal takeover of the evacuation of New Orleans, only to be denied by politicians in Louisiana who viewed the offer as a way for the administration to blame the locals.

To the rational individual these efforts suggest responsibility in anticipation of terrible crises. But ultimately government is just a bunch of imperfect human beings, just as susceptible to the forces of human nature and poor decision-making as anyone, only more encumbered by reams of red tape. As Thomas Sowell remarked recently, "Maybe the reason we are so often disappointed with [politicians] is that they have over-promised and we have been gullible enough to believe them."

Among the gullible, it seems, is the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson, who penned a painfully obtuse opinion column lastTuesday (Sept. 6), neatly encapsulating the entitlement mentality that has apparently penetrated the psyches of far too many Americans.

Mr. Robinson complained that an administration that has warned of potential terrorist attacks since 9/11 "should have had in place a well-elaborated plan for evacuating a major American city." That even if a specific plan wasn't in order for New Orleans, "there should have been a generic plan." Demonstrating a complete misunderstanding of federalism, Robinson also wrote that "someone should have thought about what to do with hundreds of thousands of evacuees," whining that "it was officials at the state and local level who rose to the challenge, making it up as they went along." And, incredulously, Robinson asked, "Does the White House really believe that primary responsibility should fall on volunteers, church groups and individuals?"

If this is what we've come to expect from a columnist at one of the country's most prolific newspapers, it's no wonder so many Americans have surrendered control of their lives to the state. It is downright absurd to expect the federal government to have a "generic" plan for the evacuation of any American city, as if generalities and specifics simply overlap. And it's a stunning admission that Robinson actually believes federal authorities have more responsibility for evacuating citizens than do state and local governments, which are expected to disseminate information and maintain order, and assist those who are unable to do what the majority of individuals are responsible for doing themselves.

Moreover, Robinson's insinuation that without government the evacuees of this disaster would be hopeless is a personal affront to every individual volunteer from church groups, rescue squads, and organizations like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, all of whom dispatched from around the country to assist relief efforts. And it might be worthwhile to point out that everyday Americans have already donated over half a billion dollars to Katrina's victims. These are the first-responders who -- along with brave firemen, policemen, and paramedics of the public sector -- will save the vast majority of lives in dire emergencies.

The state certainly has a role to play in trying times. But so many Americans have been conditioned to nurse at the government teat in so many ways -- from public education and housing to medical insurance and retirement planning -- that many of us are rendered helpless when we must fend for ourselves in life and death situations, preferring instead to sit around and wait for the government to bail us out.

Our gravest failures do not lie with our mayors, governors, or beltway bureaucrats but with our misplaced compulsion to assign to them so much control over our lives in the first place.

Trevor Bothwell is a freelance writing living in Maryland. He is a contributing writer at Democracy Project and can be contacted at bothwelltj@yahoo.com. ©2005 Trevor Bothwell

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