When Government Fails

In 1906, my home town of San Francisco, then the largest city in the United States west of Chicago, was destroyed by earthquake and fire. When I was a kid there were still a lot of folks around who had adult memories of the disaster and I often heard their stories. What I now remember most is the pride of those persons. They had every right to it.

Of what were they proud? Quite simply it was of how they had rebuilt the city bigger and better than ever by the time I heard their stories, and rebuild it they, the survivors who stayed, did.

Of course in those days there was nobody else to do it – or to blame if it wasn’t done, or done fast enough to satisfy the “victims”. It wasn’t like Hurricane Katrina a few years ago. There was no FEMA, the huge government agency that is supposed to justify its existence by meeting immediate needs in the early aftermath of a disaster but which was so slow in New Orleans some called it criminal. No one in 1906 thought to direct howls of outrage at President Theodore Roosevelt as were hurled at George W. Bush for not immediately turning his attention to the plight of the “poor” who were making the interior of the Superdome more dangerous than the flooded streets outside. Congress would not appropriate vast sums of money for reconstruction as after Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, or even for the financial relief of millionaires who build luxury homes where homes don’t belong, like on Atlantic coast beachfronts or in Southern California canyons where wildfires are inevitable.

No such government “help” existed in 1906. Today it is expected. Indeed, we are perilously close to expecting government not simply to clean up and rebuild after a disaster, but to do just about everything else for us. Then we are somehow surprised, and resentful, if it fails.

Let me define “everything” as relieving us from the trouble of: 1) being alive, and 2) living as free men, and not merely free in the political sense but as God made us: the only one of His creatures resembling Him insofar as we possess will and intellect.

My remarks here are occasioned by the latest government failure, to wit its inability to get going in a smooth and efficient way a program, Obamacare, that is supposed to keep everybody “affordably” healthy.

There has been something missing amid all the complaints about this latest failure of government to fulfill its promises and people’s expectations. It is an expression of the Christian view that life is a series of troubles until finally we run into some that’s bad enough it kills us. This fatal trouble may not be a disease. Nowadays it is almost as apt to be visited on us by a neighbor or breakdown of a machine. Whatever, no number of police, no amount of surveillance or regulation, no surgery, drug or preventive care, affordable or otherwise, can make life serenely trouble-free.

There is another truth parallel to that one: Whether fatal or merely irksome, trouble having its own way of finding us, it makes no sense to look for it. Yet isn’t that, in effect, what we’re doing when we expect government to be ready to keep us healthy; or to provide “affordable” or even free education through college so we can land a well-paying job after graduation; to ensure a well-paying job will exist; that we will have “affordable” housing with all the modern conveniences; or to make sure in a thousand different other ways that everybody has an equal opportunity to lead as trouble-free a life as possible? That government may accomplish this – do more and more for us – we ignore it that we do less for ourselves and thereby become less and less free.

Let me relate this thought to one I expressed on the SBC website a couple of months ago: that when we allow intermediary institutions like family, church, and community to become as weak as they are in America today, there is nothing left standing between the individual and the state with all its power, a power which does not diminish when it is exercised inefficiently, let alone enforced coercively – as when a law requires the individual to purchase health insurance whether or not he wants it. The flip-side is that when an individual does need help, and sooner or later everyone will, it may not be available from anywhere except the government.

No wonder, then, that people are resentful when government is inefficient, or even become suspicious, given the power of the state, that the apparent inefficiency or other negative consequence of government action may actually be intended.

The resentment, suspicion, or plain fear is reflected in the popular culture, especially in movies and television programs from The X-Files to Homeland. These programs and movies like the Bourne franchise or The Hunger Games always feature men or women who pit themselves against bureaucratic incompetence, presidential subterfuge or power-crazy law enforcement officials, and sometimes, as in The Hunger Games, they even spark popular revolt. Then the audience sitting at home or in a theater will cheer.

In actuality such heroes seldom exist. (Edward Snowden could be nominated as one, although we haven’t seen the end of his story. What happens if President Putin is eventually obliged to withdraw his protection?)

Aside from the exceptional hero, then, what we have in the actual world is the great majority who are nothing like the survivors of 1906 who rebuilt a great city by their own efforts. Once the government’s computers are reprogrammed and the President makes a couple of concessions to critics, they will soon depend on Obamacare the way they do FEMA after a disaster. That is unless they manage to become rich and ignore it the way a wealthy Englishman can his country’s wretched National Health Service. They will hardly be able to do otherwise.

They will also continue to live full of resentment, suspicion, fear and even anger, but finding emotional relief in their movies and television programs the way an ancient Roman could when it was thumbs-up for some gladiator in the Coliseum.

In the actual world, the only real exceptions will be Christians who continue to depend on God, accepting their limitations, instead of an agency of government promising the impossible. Perhaps only He can judge if that will be enough to make them heroes, but they will have the satisfaction of at least remaining men.