Stephen Roberts

Continuing his legacy as one who better informs political debates with history and common-sense, Marvin Olasky analyzes what went right and wrong in the management of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in his latest book, The Politics of Disaster. In his introduction, Olasky makes an interesting point: people often make natural disasters a subject of theodicy (questioning God in light of suffering) rather than anthropodicy (questioning man in the same light). We can do nothing to prevent the providential works of God, but we can clearly question human response. And with that, Olasky proceeds into a full-orbed critique of the Katrina response.

Olasky first categorizes the numerous failures of both the government "paperocracy" and media over-dramatization that magnified the negative impact of Katrina. The extensive bureaucracy is exceeded only by an endless paper trail, which in the end caused shortages and delays that may have cost lives. The mainstream media only exacerbated these logistical shortcomings with exaggerated claims of civic unrest, which in turn necessitated that every rescue mission have an armed contingent. It seems that the already beleaguered survivors in New Orleans had to bear an unnecessary storm of delay and deceit.

Anchoring his point in historical developments of the past century, Olasky shows how the growth of government bureaucracy foreshadowed its failure in light of Katrina. Olasky does not just leave his readers fuming as a result of his myriad critiques, however; rather, he bucks the journalistic trend and highlights the good guys amidst this tragedy. He highlights the organizational discipline of the military, the quick and able response of private businesses, and the tireless care provided by faith-based organizations. Such a round of praises certainly won't merit Professor Olasky an appearance on Air America any time soon.

Unlike many journalists of our day, Olasky provides concrete steps for reform that would result in humans alleviating tragedy instead of simply accentuating it. In short, he proposes tearing down the government structures that allow for irresponsibility on the part of individuals and local governments. We must not have a system that encourages people to build in high-risk disaster areas, knowing that a government bailout awaits their irresponsibility in times of crisis. Providing a cohesive free-market plan of incentives and accountability, Olasky moves the reader from frustration over the past to hope for disaster management in the future.

It seems that the trifecta of hope lies in the rapid response of the military, the resources of private business, and the relief provided by faith-based organizations. This last group becomes Olasky's focus, as the "father of compassionate conservatism" shows how a conservative ideology can provide the most effective care for the needy — namely, through the work of faith groups. It is these groups that most know the needs of the people around them, that will not let strangers slip through the cracks, and that will zealously commit themselves to their cause as if their motivation is found in God rather than government.

Rehashing the Bush Administration's Faith-Based Initiative policy, Olasky proposes formula grants from the federal government to charitable religious organizations - grants which give the charities greater resources for their tasks, yet which still allow them to operate largely independent of government intrusion.

Professor Olasky's plans for faith-based groups may raise skepticism among some readers. While the system may be most efficient, it seems that people and groups of faith who become too involved in governmental policies come away to a great extent secularized. One need only think back to the great liberal upsurge in the mainstream protestant denominations which eventually crushed the Gospel message they carried. The fear here is that religious groups would merely become handmaidens of government social policy, rather than messengers of great news that is shown more clearly through good deeds.

Yet as Professor Olasky often says, one mustn't "throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater." There is a place for social action within the Church, and it should be utilized. He even provides an example of how the government has been working in conjunction with a church in Florida in relieving social ills. Such religious responsibility will be crucial in future disasters, just as it was after Katrina.

Providing several disaster scenarios for the future, Olasky shows how trimming the role of government now and assisting private groups in responding to disasters would be the best approach for effective response to each. Much as The Tragedy of American Compassion influenced the welfare debate, it is very likely that The Politics of Disaster will do the same in the emergency management debate. One hopes that big-government apologists will interact with this well-reasoned material in the next series of debates on the issue.


Stephen Roberts

Stephen Roberts, a student at Westminster Seminary in California, maintains a blog at stevo.townhall.com.

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