Irene & Government

by Michael Sean Winters

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Last summer, I drove with a friend into the mountains of Vermont to visit the Vermont Law School. It is in the small town of South Royalton, which is also famous as the birthplace of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons. Like most small towns in Vermont, South Royalton sits at the foot of steep hillocks and mountains, alongside a river. That day, the river sparkled in the sunshine. The river is fast-flowing at all times, receiving all the rainfall and snowfall from all those mountains, down all those creeks, and channeling all that water towards the nearby Connecticut River. Last summer, it was a beautiful sight.

The past two days, the vistas of Vermont’s beautiful, fast-running creeks and rivers turned horrific. People who are quite accustomed to three foot snow drifts and temperatures hovering near zero in January are not accustomed to tropical storms and neither was their landscape. From Brattleboro in the south, to Royalton in the center of the state, to Montpelier in the north, whole sections of towns were washed away and buildings made unusable, including the state office building in Montpelier that houses most of the state’s government agencies.

Other scenes from other states are just as heart-wrenching. The Outer Banks of North Carolina has many destroyed homes: I see the pictures and wonder if that now-wrecked home constituted someone’s life savings? Another photo showed whole sections of towns completely cut-off from the mainland, and you wonder: Do they have electricity? If not, are there any diabetics there, whose insulin needs to be refrigerated? I call my Dad’s number, in Connecticut, but there is no power there and his phone is not turned on. Is he okay? The nationwide death total has passed 40.

It is against the backdrop of human suffering that we must now weigh the charge, repeated just last week by Cong. Ron Paul, that government spending is the central problem in our economy (and in our culture), that the market is the only remedy for social problems, that we have created a “nanny state,” that if only government would get out of the way, our country and its economy could have the kind of happy ending we remember from the old movies. Cong. Paul is the most extreme of the aspiring presidential candidates in this regard, suggesting that FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, be shut down and such duties be devolved to the states. That position sounds less plausible today in Montpelier, where, as mentioned, the state’s office building was so badly flooded it has not yet been deemed safe for use.

But, in truth, Cong. Paul’s position was implausible before the flooding. Not just because sometimes the resources of state and local governments are themselves overwhelmed by natural disasters. It is part of our national character to pull together in the face of a natural disaster, to help each other out, to recognize that we are, as a people, stronger when we stick together. This sense of being bound together is one of the things that makes us a nation, as Sen. Bernie Sanders opined last night on CNN: We are not just a collection of states, we are a nation, and rallying round is one of the things nations do. One could argue, I suppose, that this pulling together need not take any governmental expression, that private charities and neighborliness should step up so that government can step out. But, those roads that were washed away were public roads, the bridges that collapsed were not privately owned bridges, and public buildings like schools and libraries shared in the damage as well as private homes. Government is inescapably involved in these tragedies, and only the kind of really, really high ideological blinders that Paul wears would keep one from seeing it.

I would like to invite Paul, and others who spew this social Darwinism, dressed up in modern economic drag with citations to Hayek and von Mises and Rand, to come to my hometown in Connecticut. They would no doubt applaud the fact that we have a volunteer fire department that, among other things, came to pump out my basement when it flooded last month, long before the torrential rains of Irene. They would no doubt be interested by the “House the Women Built,” an old home constructed during the American Revolution by the women of our town, with the aid of the few older men who had not gone off to fight, and I could bring them to some other, very recently raised barns that were the result of similar group efforts. On any given weekend, they might encounter a tag sale at the Catholic Church, or a bake sale at the Grange, or a grinder sale at the Congregational Church. Growing up, our Community Players put on plays, with all proceeds going to a local charity. My hometown is, in every sense of the word, a community, filled with the kind of Yankee self-starters that would make any libertarian proud.

Of course, the new fire engine those volunteers ride upon was paid for by taxes and, if memory serves, we also got a grant from the state towards the purchase price. The new building to hold the town’s highway department, a handsome building made to look like a barn, that, too, was the result of a state grant, a federal grant and I am pretty sure it got some of the much-despised Stimulus funds. Many of the people who participate in the barn-raisings came to the town somewhat recently, to teach at the nearby campus of the University of Connecticut. UConn is not only a public university, it got started as a land-grant college in the 1880s, so it has been proving the efficacy of government to the rest of society for more than 130 years. When they rebuilt the Grange Hall a few years back, to make it a community center, the town started by getting a state grant. Anyone with five minutes of actual experience of local government knows how thoroughly intertwined it is with state and federal government, and how foolishly simplistic are the mantras directed against Washington.

My little hometown in Connecticut is well accustomed to the assistance of the federal government whether that assistance is always immediately apparent or not. And, by the way, those rugged individualists in the West, let’s see how well they would do without federal water projects. We all suck at the federal teat. And, what’s wrong with that? Is it not the case that the whole country benefits from having vibrant cities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix, none of which could exist without federal water projects? Is my little hometown – and others like it – not better off with a new fire engine? Should UConn shut its doors or sell itself to the private sector? These anti-government jeremiads are as ridiculous as they are hateful.

I am glad we have FEMA. I am glad we have a federal income tax – in fact, I wish we would get rid of payroll taxes altogether and have only a federal income tax. I am glad we have public as well as private universities. I am glad local communities can get state and federal grants for projects. I am glad that in the face of sudden emergencies like a Hurricane and in the face of less sudden emergencies like millions of Americans without health insurance, we have a government that is willing to step up and step in. The Tea Party foolishness is not only foolish, it is morally callous. And to hang on to that foolishness in the face of the devastation just wrought along the Eastern seaboard, is the very definition of extremism.

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