India Uncut

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Friday, September 02, 2005

Lumbering giants in a time of disaster

Daniel Henninger writes about natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina:
We know what to do. We have many specialists in the arcane disciplines relevant to understanding natural and man-made disasters. We know what to do, but we are not good at using what we know. Why not?

We fail to use well what we know because we rely too much on large public bureaucracies. This was the primary lesson of the 9/11 Commission Report. Large public bureaucracies, whether the FBI and the CIA or FEMA and the Corps of Engineers, don't talk to each other much. They are poorly incentivized, if at all. Budgets, the oxygen of the acronymic planets, make bureaucracy's managers first responders to constant political whim. Real-world problems, as the 9/11 report noted, inevitably seem distant and minor: "Once the danger has fully materialized, evident to all, mobilizing action is easier--but it then may be too late."


Big public bureaucracies are going to get us killed. They already have. One may argue that this is an inevitable result of living in an advanced and complex democracy. Yes, up to a point. An open political system indeed breeds inefficiencies...
His solution -- and I had endorsed something similar here -- goes this way:
We should consider outsourcing some of these functions, for profit, to the private sector. In recent days, offers of help have come from such companies as Anheuser-Busch and Culligan (water), Lilly, Merck and Wyeth (pharmaceuticals), Nissan and GM (cars and trucks), Sprint, Nextel and Qwest (communications gear and phone cards), Johnson & Johnson (toiletries and first aid), Home Depot and Lowe's (manpower). Give contract authority to organize these resources to a project-management firm like Bechtel. Use the bureaucracies as infantry.

A public role is unavoidable and political leadership is necessary. But if we're going to live with First World threats, such as the destruction of a major port city, let's deploy the most imaginative First World brains--in the private sector and academia--to mitigate those threats. Laughably implausible? Look at your TV screen. The status quo isn't funny.
Indeed. And all of what Henninger writes here, needless to say, is as relevant to India as to the USA, Mumbai as to New Orleans. Big government, in its nature, has limitations and built-in inefficiencies. We must look elsewhere for answers.

Update: Don Boudreaux predicts in Cafe Hayek:
Virtually all useful help – from search and rescue to rebuilding – will come from decentralized sources. No governor, no beltway bureaucrat, and certainly no U.S. President, has sufficient knowledge of what must be done and how best to do it. It’s a fantasy to suppose that Washington can ‘save’ or even give much help to New Orleanians today. The vast majority of good and even great deeds will be performed by individuals, with no direction from DC or from any government agency.
That is exactly how it has happened in the two disaster-struck areas I travelled to in the aftermath of a natural calamity -- Latur after the earthquake in 1993 and Tamil Nadu after the tsunami last December. (You can read my chronicles of the latter visit here.) All the help came from private initiatives, either NGOs or groups of individuals. The government did do some decent work in a couple of places, but that was through happenstance, through the fortuitous presence of a committed officer or two. In general, the government did little, and everything I saw on those trips, to borrow Boudreaux's words, "unmasked the pretenses of government as savior."
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