cross-posted at politicsofselfishness.com
Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath illustrate, far better than any political debates or television advertisements, the choice that American voters must make next week: Should the role of government be drastically reduced or are there things that government, as an agent of the public, can do that the private sector is unable or unwilling do?
In his now infamous answer to the question posed by CNN ‘s John King this past June during the GOP presidential primary debates, Mitt Romney was queried about the role of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). He replied that the states would do a better job responding to disasters than any federal agency and that the private sector would do an even better job.
Romney’s reply was consistent with the GOP’s 18th century ideological conviction that government is always intrusive, burdensome and ineffective, especially at the national level, and that the private sector is invariably more efficient and more cost-effective. This message has been repeated ad nauseam by spokesmen for the GOP and its army of SUPERPACs and financial supporters who envision that a Romney victory will free corporations and the 1% from the need to comply with public regulations or to pay their fair share of taxes.
Romney’s rhetoric has now challenged by reality. Upon his election, President Obama made the restoration and professionalization of FEMA a priority. This was necessitated because of the Bush administration’s willful indifference to that agency and its pitiful response to Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s remark, “You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie” showed in stark relief why public agencies should never be staffed by hacks, sycophants, or nay-sayers who believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that the role of government should be minimal and that, wherever possible, public goods - including infrastructure, schools, military support, the postal service, medical care, Social Security and Medicaire - should be privatized and sold off to entrepreneurs in the private sector while ordinary citizens are left to fend for themselves.
Anyone who still subscribes to such utter nonsense needs only to reflect upon the “success” of ERISA (Employee Retirement Income Security Act) that was enacted during the Reagan administration. While ERISA preempted almost all favorable state regulations designed to protect employee benefits, it defunded and destroyed hundreds of thousands of defined benefits plans - traditional pension plans - and replaced them with 401K plans in which employees lost more than a trillion dollars of their savings in the Great Recession.
President Obama has assured the hard-hit region of the Mid-Atlantic and the Northeast states that the their government - the federal government, through FEMA - will mobilize every resource at the disposal of the federal, state and local governments, as well as private charities, to address the needs of suffering families. FEMA’s response to this crisis will be very different from that of the insurance companies. It will take years of litigation and endless frustration for those paragons of private enterprise to finally acknowledge their obligations and to pay all claims for which their hundreds of thousands of policy-holders paid premiums to the insurers of billions of dollars over the years. In fact, the first response of the insurance companies - in the face of the undeniable evidence of climate change - will be to increase the premiums of all of their insureds and, in the immediate coastal areas at or below sea-level, to withdraw insurance coverage all together.
Since his election, President Obama has been vilified, in the words of Mitt Romney, as someone who is determined to convert the United States into a European-style social democracy. The now right-wing hack commentator Dick Morris said, in a column circulated on GOPUSA.com, that conservatives are "enraged at Barack Obama's socialism and radicalism" and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has titled his most recent book To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular-Socialist Machine.
There is no evidence to support the proposition that those who argue that government must play an indispensable role in protecting and promoting the public interest or that - in a conflict between purely private desires to accumulate profit and the public good, the latter should prevail - are socialists. Every student of history knows better. The ancient Greeks, for example, had no notion of privacy or of private interests whatsoever: "The Greek was seldom at home. He used his house for sleeping and eating. You will not find him in his private garden: for a Greek city, crushed within it with its circuit of walls, has no room for gardens, and what was the use of them with orchids just outside the city walls? He will be at work or along with other men in some public place." (Alfred Zimmern, The Greek Commonwealth).
The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, who was steeped in the tradition of conservatism that was nurtured by the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, has insisted in his book, Man and the State, that "the primary reason for which men, united in political society, need the State, is the order of justice. On the other hand, social justice is the crucial need of modern societies. As a result, the primary duty of the modern state is the enforcement of social justice."
The private sector, as Hurricane Sandy has shown, cannot and will not serve as an instrument of social justice or address the needs of the victims. That is not the nature of business nor the purpose of private enterprise. The role of government, on the other hand, is something very different: to serve the needs of the entire community, to help those who are unable to help themselves, and to provide a safety net for all citizens.
In this election, voters must decide which vision of America they want to shape their future.