On What Government’s Supposed to Do

I’ve spent most of my weekend watching the coverage of what’s happened in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. I’m sure I’m not alone. It’s a hard story to watch, but it’s compelling. For people in Abaco and Grand Bahama, the devastation is frighteningly familiar; for those of us in Nassau, it’s instructive. Because there but for the grace of God go we.

The biggest problem, as I see it, isn’t the geography of New Orleans, or the intensity of the hurricane. Both of these are facts. They’re facts with which the city of New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the federal government of the USA have lived forever. History has shown all of them what floods and storms can do to the city, and studies predicted just this eventuality. For people to claim that what happened in New Orleans was beyond their imagination is inexcusable; what happened was not only imagined, but predicted.

The problem lies with the failure of government at every level it existed.

You see, it seems to me that when you build a city on a flood plain, you’d better be ready for a flood. When your state’s economy rests on the commerce that comes and goes through that city, you’d better be ready for a flood. And when a huge chunk of your national economy rests upon the proper functioning of that city, you’d better be ready for a flood.

And not one of those who govern New Orleans — at the city, the state, or the national level — was ready.

Let me redirect my focus for just a moment. Let’s sit here and work out what exactly it is that a government’s supposed to do. It’s supposed to look after its economy. It’s supposed to protect its infrastructure. And above all, it’s supposed to be responsible for the people it represents — not just the people who voted for it, or the people who support it, or even the people it hopes will vote for it one day in the future; but all the people it represents.

And the governments of New Orleans failed the city and the people so spectacularly that the entire world is riveted.

Now what, I’m wondering, is this? What went wrong? I’m writing this on September 4, four years to the day after our own local disaster, the burning of the Straw Market. As I write, people are continuing to die in New Orleans, dying of thirst and heat exhaustion and illness and starvation. All week they have been dying, and what’s worst of all is that they were dying in the very places that they went for help and relief: in the two major shelters that were available for them. For a week the city and the state and the nation have been bickering about who should do what, and when, and people have died as a result.

And so I want to write about what government’s supposed to do.

The reason why governments exist is this: when people come together in large groups, the people who tend to suffer are the weak — the children, the elderly, the ill, those who can’t take care of themselves. This doesn’t happen in smaller communities in which everyone is known, which regulate themselves according to personal links. But as soon as societies get so large that people become strangers, their ability to regulate themselves breaks down, and they require some kind of outside force to help them maintain order.

It’s only relatively recently in human history — in the last century or shorter — that that outside force takes the form of a government that is made up people democratically elected by all adult members of society — by secret ballot, no less. And so it’s only relatively recently in human history that elected officials have been (in theory at least) personally answerable to every single adult member of that society. The other side of that, though, is that because a government is created by votes, every governing politician is aware that there are some people who supported him, and there are some people who opposed him. The flaw in the democratic system we now know is that politicians seem less and less prepared to be statesmen, preferring rather to help those they know or think voted for them in the place of governing all equally.

This is what makes the magnitude of the failure of government in Louisiana so staggering, and so regrettably understandable, at the same time. Leaders who were well-versed in the political fray — who were able to scrap and fight on a partisan level — were faced with a disaster that did not discriminate. Their response, however, was shaped by their long-seated habit of behaving politically. That this tendency is not limited to minor politicians, but to even those who hold the highest offices not only in the nation but in the world, is evident because even the President of the United States of America appeared not to be exempt.

But I don’t want to use this as an avenue for criticism, but for warning. The tendency to focus on partisanism, on special interest groups, on favoured elements, on politics, not governance, is a worldwide malaise. Few democratic countries seem to be free of this. The problem seems to be endemic. Statesmen are hard to find. And the results are tragic.

This provides us with a lesson for our own nation. As is the case in so many other places in the democratic world, government tends more towards the superficial and the pragmatic rather than towards the fundamental and the longterm. What has happened in New Orleans provides us with a horrific cautionary tale. It is time for us all to focus less on scoring and more on governing.