Naturally, it was all the president's fault. Everything is George Bush's fault in a dazed and rancorous nation. Whatever the actual defects of federal efforts to manage the Hurricane Katrina disaster, Bush is the boy to blame, because the federal government has become in our minds the guarantor of ... everything.
You can see the logic of it. In size, in cost and in presence, the U.S. government dwarfs every company, every institution and even every combination of governments. The news these days is rarely about what private people are doing. The center of all attention is Washington, D.C., where, for example, we're all atwitter over whether John Roberts gets to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court. The Roberts nomination commands all this attention because of the court's tendency to set national policy, whether it's asked to do so or not. It matters, clearly, who sits on the court.
But back to Katrina and how, if people are hungry and riotous in New Orleans, it must be Bush's fault. It must be, because he's the president -- and, as various Democrats would add, using their lips to make a rude and famous noise, never should have been .
Just what the political boo-birds would have done themselves to head off or alleviate the disruption in Louisiana no one is quite sure. The mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana traffic less in policy proposals than in invective. That helps a lot, as we all see. Yes, we need trucks and buses. And, yes, we need roads and streets to drive on.
A highly intelligent column by the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Henninger suggests that a basic cause of the mess is over-reliance on bureaucracy, given that bureaucracies tend to personify inefficiency and waste.
"This was the primary lesson of the 9/11 Commission Report," Henninger notes. "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 ... make bureaucracy's managers first responders to constant political whim." Henninger's understandable preference, regarding the New Orleans crisis, is for infinitely greater reliance on private sector generalship, with bureaucrats functioning as "infantry."
Meanwhile, what about the looters and carjackers and rapists whose emergence and persistence in New Orleans must also somehow be Bush's fault? Here we get to another unpleasant byproduct of our reliance on government: namely, moral complacency.
Just when you think you've buried the nastier human impulses beneath a stack of government incentives and initiatives, you find -- as at the New Orleans Convention Center and the Superdome -- that here those impulses come again, nastier than ever.
The perfection of human behavior must be the oldest political obsession anywhere -- and the most futile. The one-time history graduate student in me begs to report that no one has ever gone broke betting against good behavior's eclipsing for long the bad, the rotten and the vile. They used to call it "original sin" or "evil." I don't know what they call it in political/bureaucratic circles, now that the old religious understandings no longer get much of a hearing in intellectual circles.
No one, when the New Orleans unpleasantness started, was going to treat looters as the National Guard had treated their ilk during the aftermath of Galveston's catastrophic 1900 storm. That is, no one was going to shoot them on sight. Not in front of the TV cameras. Not with Al Sharpton and the ACLU watching for signs of cruelty with a racial tint.
If that's where we've come, that's where we've come. Let's just not too angrily blame the president. We might even give some thought to non-bureaucratic methods of reviving respect for the institutions on which we used to depend for moral instruction -- notably the churches; yea, the Scriptures themselves. What a man is never taught he is highly unlikely ever to learn. On the other hand, one instinct never fades. That's the instinct to recognize it as the president's fault. Whatever "it" is. Whoever the president may be.