Twilight Zoning

Building codes didn't save houses from disaster.

All Americans remember the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans - though in reality, the devastation spread far wider than just that mess of a single city.  Liberals ignored the mess that was made in Mississippi because the local government was effective there.

As we watch the fires rage in California, what lessons have we learned from Katrina?  Is FEMA working properly these days?

It's all very well for the government to have a suitably effective response to a disaster; we quite properly expect this.  It's a far better thing, as well as much easier, for government to act to prevent a disaster, or at least to warn residents loudly and clearly of the potential consequences of their foolish choices.  This doesn't take Presidential authority, or rocket scientists - all it takes is a little common sense, and a sense of responsibility.  In both instances, local government appears to have failed miserably.

First, we need to explain a vitally important principle when it comes to government.  This is the principle of subsidiarity, and it means that government functions should be carried on by the lowest feasible level of government - because that way, the work of government is done most effectively, while remaining answerable to the people.

Now, some things are naturally the province of the highest level of government - you don't want every town's mayor to have the codes to his town's hidden missile silos.  But it makes no sense for the President to control the placement of stop signs - each local town will naturally have a far better grasp of where those are needed.  We see this concept reflected in our Constitution's Bill of Rights, in the Tenth Amendment:

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This was supposed to place limits on the federal government by giving it only those powers specified in the Constitution, and reserving all the rest to the states - or to the people.  We've deviated from this model more than a little, to be sure.

Trying to follow the principle of subsidiarity helps keep our country more free and democratic, because lower levels of government can naturally be more responsive.  If you, personally, want something in the government changed, are you going to be able to convince the President to do it?  Not likely, unless you're George Soros or Bill Gates.  But you may very well be able to convince your local mayor or board of selectmen that something needs to change - because they live fairly near you, and answer to a much smaller number of people.  That makes you correspondingly more important.

But the other reason subsidiarity is a good idea, is because the fewer things a given level of government is responsible for handling, the better a job it is likely to do with it.  If the government is responsible for a whole host of things, there's a natural tendency to lose the "big picture," and get lost in the bureaucracy - in many cases, rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

And that's what we see in both New Orleans and Southern California.  No doubt all newly-built structures in those areas were properly zoned; the building inspectors made their rounds; the wiring was generally to code, citations were issued for mailboxes being too close or too far from the curb; and all the petty and not-so-petty harassments that local government is so famous for.  But they missed the forest for the trees - the whole city or development, was in the wrong place.

It's idiotic to build a city 10 feet under sea level.  It's idiotic to build wooden houses in a region characterized by bone-dry chaparral vegetation that is famously prone to fires.  Surely each and every new house was properly to code, signed, sealed, and inspected - and it was all a total and complete waste of everyone's time, because the government completely missed the giant elephant in the room staring it squarely in the face.

Bureaucrats love to hide in the pointless little details, where the massive realities can't usually catch them.  There will not be one single government official censured for the fact that New Orleans houses were built underwater, or wooden homes were built in a tinder-dry fireline.  Each and every paper-pusher can bring out reams of paperwork showing that every T was crossed and every I dotted - while the city lay desolate behind them.

Where is our common sense?  Perhaps government should not forbid people from building stupid things in stupid places - but it should darn well clearly point out the error of their ways, and announce loudly that it will not be possible to rescue the property should disaster befall.

Furthermore, government regulations that require insurance companies to equalize risk coverage are totally counterproductive.  If the insurance companies rightly recognized that a wooden house was far more likely to be destroyed than a stucco one, and priced coverage accordingly, this wouldn't be nearly the problem that it is.  On the other hand, if insurance companies fail to see the big picture and go background when the city falls apart, the homeowners will have no choice but to hold out their hand to someone.

Since the cookie insists on crumbling in this manner, why on earth would we ever want to give the government charge of our health care?  It's time to say loud and clear - First show that you can do a decent job of what you're already doing.  Then convince us that government should do more.

A few weeks back, Hillary said, "I have a million ideas. The country can't afford them all."  She has no idea how profound those last five words are.  The real question is: can we afford the current ones?

Read other articles by Hobbes or other articles on Bureaucracy.
Reader Comments

What the government does about flood and fire insurance makes perfect sense TO THE BUREAUCRATS.  As we all know, when the government gives you money when your house gets wiped out in a flood, you have to put it right back where it was wiped out.  If you don't promise to rebuild just where it was, you don't get the money.

What would happen if people took the money and built somewhere else?  Over time, there wouldn't be any more houses in flood areas, so there would be no more flood disasters, and no need for the bureaucrats.  

Bureaucrats ALWAYS write rules so that the problem gets worse over time.  If they actually ever solve a problem, their budget might go away, but there's always more money to be had in making the problem worse.

The bureaucrats are acting sensibly given the law as it is.  We elect the politicians who let them waste our money, it's our fault.

November 2, 2007 7:38 PM
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