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Remember the Maginot -- or, don't shoot the dog

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

You’ve heard the phrase “Fighting the last war.” You have chuckled at apt quotations of “Too many chiefs, not enough braves.” You know the origin of the term FUBAR.

Welcome to modern America, the greatest country on the planet. Which has taken a very wrong turn.

Or so says science fiction writer David Brin, who argues that we are living in a period of “historical anomaly.”

For most of our history, Brin elaborates, America’s “chief approach to dealing with danger . . . was to rely upon a robust citizenry to quickly supplement, augment and reinforce the thin veneer of professionals in a relatively small peacetime warrior-protector caste.” But recently — since World War II and especially since Vietnam — we have developed a massive professional corps to cope with crises. To prevent crises, even.

According to Brin, we used to rely “primarily upon concepts of robustness and resilience”; now we too often aim “to anticipate and forestall every conceivable danger.”

Well, why shouldn’t we?

Simple answer: We can’t.

Most recent crises went unpredicted by the professionals . . . or, if predicted, the predictions went unheeded by other professionals.

Further, major crises were most successfully responded to (and even managed) by amateurs, not professionals. Remember Rudy Giuliani walking through a devastated Manhattan? Remember the heroic firemen? Well, they did their jobs, but on the morning of crisis, and even during the clean-up, it was volunteers who did the most good. In one amazing and amazingly under-reported mobilization, a fleet of boats across the water trekked to Manhattan shores and docks to help evacuate citizens.

If we’d have listened to certain lovers of bureaucracy and planning, those volunteer boatmen would have been prohibited from helping, and the city of New York (or the state, or the federal government) would have kept a fleet ready just for the occasion.

But such technocratic notions only have the gleam of wisdom. As Brin explains, our current reliance upon professionals is unrealistic and . . . unresilient. We didn’t have a fleet of boats. Instead, private citizens’ privately-owned boats served well. It is this ability, in times of crisis, to call up reserves from the private sphere that makes for a resilient social order.

Brin calls himself a futurist, but his ideas sound like common sense to me.

Yes, folks, ordinary people can do extraordinary things. And when we work in tandem with a few professionals, the outcomes tend to be a lot better than if we had handed over the whole job to the pros.

When we slough off the responsibility, on the other hand, those pros tend to become lazy, careless, narrow-visioned, hide-bound, incompetent, greedy. And we, the citizens, become lazier yet, heedless, irresponsible, fearful, accepting, poorer.

Across America many institutions thrive, completely dependent on the older, more reliable form of organization. Many a small-town fire department is run by one or two professionals, with most actual fire fighters serving as unpaid volunteers. Same goes for many a rural ambulance service.

Indeed, a country friend tells me that he had nearly a dozen EMTs in his house ten minutes after he called 9-1-1. That was overkill, but the extras didn’t get in the way. They were just there if needed. Two EMTs took charge. A few of the extras helped move furniture to allow a gurney free access. And the whole event took no more than a half hour.

One might not expect such service from highly paid professionals in urban areas.

The demand for professionals, however — for pros at every level of a government enterprise — can scuttle this sort of voluntary efficiency, and leads to huge public expenditures and exorbitant taxes. And the demand for professionals seems to be growing — at least from other professionals — with each crisis.

The huge expense, the continued growth of this sector — this would all be acceptable if the professional services could do good at their specified jobs. But the quality of service tends to degrade, even to the point of negating the very purpose invoked.

I think of this degradation as the Dead Pet Dog Effect, after the tale of the Maryland town mayor whose house was descended upon by misguided, misdirected drug warriors. This platoon of “professionals” held the innocent family at gunpoint, going so far as to shoot their dogs, not realizing until too late that their target was the actual mayor of Berywyn Heights, and that their case (as well as their warrant) had no merit. This counter-productive unprofessionalism really is the hardly unexpected result of too much professionalism, as well as of too few effective limits on power.

We should heed Brin’s warning. We should begin, again, to suspect folly whenever professionalism becomes the be-all and end-all of a public service. If we “forget our American tradition” we will find ourselves victimized by what Brin calls the “professional protector caste.”

This is not to say that these professionals aren’t needed. But they are needed in context. And we who depend on them must remember that context. We should also keep in mind that these professionals — if employed by governments — typically exhibit certain pretty obvious limitations.

The biggest limitation is lack of resilience, as Brin says. And this limitation seems endemic to government operation, as observed more than a century ago by a major 19th century sociologist:

Unlike private enterprise which quickly modifies its actions to meet emergencies — unlike the shopkeeper who promptly finds the wherewith to satisfy a sudden demand — unlike the railway company which doubles its trains to carry a special influx of passengers; the law-made instrumentality lumbers on under all varieties of circumstances at its habitual rate. By its very nature it is fitted only for average requirements, and inevitably fails under unusual requirements.

Though we might think that bureaucracies and government professional services are there for emergencies, they have historically worked their best just plodding along. FEMA’s inglorious failure with Katrina was not simply the result of an incompetent president. It was part and parcel of how governments go about their routine.

To expect more may be to expect the impossible.

And when experts do try to prevent a future catastrophe, they are often amazingly blinded by their own limits of vision. Think of the Maginot Line. Then think of the Department of Homeland Security, or the TSA.

Placing our trust in government is almost certainly the wrong way to go about securing ourselves from danger. Instead, we should work to keep our governments’ emergency forces lean, adding our own muscle as required.

We would not only save taxes. We would save lives, too. 

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