Commentary Magazine


Government Doesn’t, and Shouldn’t, Have Magical Powers

Yuval Levin, in a brilliant post at The Corner, offers an important explanation of the similarities between the BP oil spill and Hurricane Katrina — and in his estimation, the fault lies not with the White Houses of Bush and Obama but with ourselves:

It’s like Katrina in that many people’s attitude regarding the response to it reveals completely unreasonable expectations of government. The fact is, accidents (not to mention storms) happen. We can work to prepare for them, we can have various preventive rules and measures in place. We can build the capacity for response and recovery in advance. But these things 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….

We seem to think that given our modern powers, there ought to be no accidents and no natural disasters anymore, and when those happen we blame the people in charge. Well, call me crazy but I don’t want a government so powerful that it could move half a million people in mere hours in response to a hurricane, or would have such total control over every facet of every industry that the potential for industrial accidents would be entirely eliminated. Such power would come at enormous cost to a lot of things we care about.

We who live in the 21st century West have the least messy, least dangerous, least uncertain lives of any human beings in history. We should be very grateful for that, but we should not let our good fortune utterly distort our expectations of life, and we should not react with unrestrained indignant shock anytime the limitations of our power make themselves seen or the cold and harsh capriciousness of nature overcomes our defenses. We should expect a firm response from the institutions we have built to protect ourselves—science, technology, and modern government—but we cannot expect a perfect response. Not from Bush, and not from Obama.

There’s more. Much more. Give it a read.