Is more government really the answer?

Bill Murchison
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Posted: Sep 13, 2005 12:00 AM

Now, as we all know, if we listen attentively to Sen. Edward Kennedy and the Liberal Establishment Chorus, it was government that failed the people of the Gulf Coast when Katrina rolled down upon them.

 So what's this? The solution, according to Kennedy, is ... government; specifically, a Gulf Coast Redevelopment Authority ready to reinvest at least $150 billion of taxpayer money in order "to fulfill the true promise of the American dream."

 The things politicians do say! Yes, sir, what we need more of is government, because government gets the job done, except on those occasions it doesn't get the job done. Such occasions generally go unmentioned when the need arises -- like now -- to offer government's services in the pursuit of political advantage. Thus -- according to Sen. Kennedy -- in order to restore meaningful life to the Gulf Coast, all we need is a federal overlord to redirect and coordinate reconstruction efforts.

 That's one irony: government as the answer to government's failures. There's another irony here: the perceptible stirrings, stronger and more palpable all the time, of private initiatives aimed at doing, more or less, what Sen. Kennedy wants the government to do, only without rigid direction or enforceable blueprint.

 Here's part of the New York Times' front page for Sept. 10: "In Storm's Ruins, a Rush to Rebuild and Reopen for Business." Two stories follow, and two subheads: "Contractors, and Lobbyists, Line Up" and "New Orleans Executives Plan Revival." We learn, for instance, of efforts by the "business establishment" to "plot the rebirth of the city." We also learn -- careful! the language smokes with ideological disdain -- that "private contractors ... are rushing to cash in" on hurricane relief and reconstruction, the prelude to a possible "bonanza for lobbyists and private companies."

 In short, the private sector hopes to make profits. How? In the traditional manner -- by figuring out what the devastated area actually needs, then supplying those needs as cheaply and efficiently as possible. That is what markets do: figure out needs, relying on instinct, research or inspiration, then risk capital -- which might have gone to some other venture -- and wait to see what happens next.

 In the fall of 2005, the needs of the Gulf Coast, and especially of New Orleans, may fairly be called mind-bending. Sen. Kennedy would have us name a federal recovery czar; this personage would prioritize needs and devise solutions; to effect the solutions, he would hire multitudes of workers and set up offices to manage and direct the varied tasks at hand. And financing it all? You and me, with our federal tax dollars.

 Anyone can see why many prefer the top-down to the bottom-up approach. The top-downers -- who have been with us for centuries -- have authority issues. They see nothing good as happening in society except on command. That good things bubble up from private inspirations and processes -- the stuff of the free marketplace -- is a concept at which they shake their heads fiercely. They see the marketplace as disdainful of what Sen. Kennedy calls "the American dream."

 It depends no doubt on what one means by "the American dream" -- opportunity, creativity, latitude; or the artificiality and mediocrity of goals imposed by committee vote. Americans may be ambiguous about having things just one way -- they tend to endorse freedom and high social ideals -- but by and large, they dream of freedom.

 The Gulf Coast reconstruction debate, to whose pilot light we have just applied a match, will involve choices many don't like making. For instance, do we restore New Orleans' old residential configuration, or do we permit the marketplace to write off areas that don't work economically?

 Government, which builds levees, and the private sector, which starts and operates businesses of every sort, will both have a hand in what happens. Is there genuine doubt, even so, as to who will work faster, better, more enduringly? Doubt, I mean, outside the fenced-in vision of Massachusetts' senior senator and his friends?