Ideology and the spill
By Jonathan Bernstein
On the one hand, I sort of like what I think Yuval Levin is trying to do in this post at NRO, because I think it points to a more honest small-government conservative rhetoric. I'm really not a fan of what Jonathan Chait calls (in the tax context, but I think it applies more generally) conservative magical thinking. Chait is talking about the (fraudulent, obviously) idea that cutting taxes invariably will raise revenues, but I think it could apply as well to conservative suggestions that if only government would get out of the way markets would somehow cure every problem in the world. A more honest conservative rhetoric, it seems to me, would accept that smaller government will have costs, but argue that it's better to bear those costs than to chase after what in their view is a misguided Utopian impulse to fix every problem. So Levin is concerned about "completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen ... and sometimes they happen on a scale that is just too great to be easily addressed. It is totally unreasonable to expect the government to be able to easily address them -- and the kind of government that would be capable of that is not the kind of government that we should want."
On the other hand, as Kevin Drum points out, regardless of what one might think government should do in the abstract, in the real world we have actually charged the federal government with some responsibilities and not with others, and it's quite reasonable to assess how government does based on what we've decided to have it do -- and Drum points out that by that standard, the Bush administration's response to Katrina was truly awful because it had let FEMA atrophy for years.
Katrina would have been an immense disaster no matter what. But it was far worse than it had to be because a conservative administration, one that fundamentally disdained the mechanics of government for ideological reasons, decided that FEMA wasn't very important. Likewise, the BP blowout was made more likely because that same administration decided that government regulation of private industry wasn't very important and turned the relevant agency into a joke. If you believe that government is the problem, not the solution, and if you actually run the country that way for eight years, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. But we shouldn't pretend it's inevitable.
On the specific question of Katrina and BP, Bush and Obama, I think Drum is clearly correct. But there is a good conservative response to his general point, although I think Drum is correct that it would involve rejecting the slogan that government is the problem, not the solution. Levin could respond that with so many agencies, and so many tasks for the federal government, it is inevitable that some agencies are going to be badly run; if the liberal impulse every time something goes wrong in the world is to ask government to fix it and avoid it ever happening again, you'll wind up with a government so large that no one could manage it. And, of course, there is a liberal response to that argument, which is simply to say that conservatives are too pessimistic about the capacity humans have to organize things. In my view as an observer, this is a healthy argument to have, and one that we do not have nearly as often as we should, mainly because the conservative side has dropped out of making serious points and instead indulges too often in magical thinking.
At any rate, two other thoughts about this. One is that I think it's pretty obvious that whatever Levin wants, in fact Americans turn immediately to the president and demand action whenever anything like this happens. In that sense, I think conservatives have badly lost the argument. The other, and fairly depressing, thing, is that the news media and most citizens don't seem to have any interest in trying to make the distinctions that Drum points out. In fact, there's evidence that it's even worse; there have been studies (and I'll have to apologize for not providing citations) that voters tend to be influenced even by such things as good and bad weather. Drought? Damaging storms? Blame the incumbent politicians. Now, I happen to be an optimist about democracy, but realistic optimism requires accepting findings about voters, and the picture often isn't very pretty.