Government Should Get Out of the Way of Disaster Response

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The hurricane devastation is severe. What should the federal government do?

Give us lots of money, say many.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) demanded $150 billion—just for Texas.

So far, Congress has agreed to $15 billion in hurricane relief. But more will come.

Few Americans will object. The House vote for the first $7.9 billion was 419-3.

But let's take a breath. Why is rebuilding the federal government's responsibility?

Clearly, only the feds can send in the military and some other first responders. After Hurricane Irma, 13,000 National Guard soldiers from 22 states helped rescue and evacuate people. That's the kind of emergency response we expect from the federal government.

But rebuilding after storms?

Washington, D.C., has no money of its own. Anything it spends comes from states. And states and local governments know better than Washington how relief money might best be used. (Though Puerto Rico may be an exception, since its government is, as one entrepreneur put it, "inept and riddled with corruption.")

The idea that the federal government must lead in rebuilding is only a recent phenomenon, says the Cato Institute's Chris Edwards.

"Prior to recent decades," he writes, "private charitable groups and businesses have been central to disaster response."

In 1906, the massive San Francisco earthquake and fire that followed destroyed 80 percent of the city. Yet that tragedy "is remembered not just for the terrible destruction it caused, but also for the remarkably rapid rebuilding... The population recovered to pre-quake levels within just three years, and residents quickly rebuilt about 20,000 buildings."

The rebuilding was quick because it wasn't done by a cumbersome government bureaucracy. Rich people and companies donated labor and goods.

"Johnson and Johnson quickly loaded rail cars full of donated medical supplies and sent them to San Francisco," writes Edwards.

Also, "90 percent of San Francisco residents had fire insurance."

Today in America, even people who live on the edges of oceans don't buy insurance. "Why pay?" many think. "There probably won't be a problem, and if there is, government will step in."

The more the federal government intervenes, the more people come to rely on handouts.

Just seven years after the San Francisco earthquake, the Midwest was hit with a huge disaster now called the Great Easter Flood. Eleven states flooded. Rising water and tornadoes killed 600 people.

John Stossel joined Reason in 2017. The former of host of Fox Business' Stossel and ABC's 20/20, he has won 19 Emmys and authored several best-sellers, most recently No, They Can't: Why Government Fails—But Individuals Succeed. He is also the author of a popular weekly column that is syndicated via Creators.

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