Katrina and Federalism--Posner's Response to Comments
Several comments echo Becker's attribution of partial responsibility for the casualties caused by Hurricane Katrina to the creation of a "culture of dependency" by modern social welfare legislation. That such legislation can create a culture of dependency is true, and is one of the reasons behind President Clinton's welfare reform--a measure that conservatives applaud; I certainly do. But that it was a factor in the botched evacuation and resulting deaths in New Orleans is speculative. Many of the casualties were to residents of hospitals and nursing homes; such casualties were not attributable to a culture of dependency. Nor, it seems to me, were the casualties to people who did not own cars, unless one believes that there would be no poor people if there were no social safety net. That seems unlikely. The fact that the social safety net is weaker in the United States than it is in Western Europe is one of the reasons that the poverty rate is higher in the United States than it is there. It is also one of the reasons that the United States has a more dynamic economy and lower unemployment, and is more attractive to immmigrants. But one must take the bad with the good, and the bad of a society such as ours in which there is real economic risk is a higher rate of poverty.
Another frequent comment was that there is no need for a federal role even in disasters that spill across state lines because, in the absence of such a role, states would form compacts to cooperate in providing emergency assistance; they would stock supplies, create a standby command staff, etc. Suppose all the states joined the compact; then we are speaking of another federal government, in effect, so what would have been gained? The nation experimented in the Articles of Confederation with government by agreement among the states, and the experiment failed. In economic terms, the transaction costs of contracts between states appear to be very high, judging from the infrequency of such contracts. I am curious whether these commenters think there is any role for a federal government.
What is a legitimate concern is the danger, if any level of government undertakes to provide emergency assistance, of subsidizing risky behavior, such as building in flood plains. That danger could be minimized by requiring that all such assistance be repaid by the recipient, unless indigent. This would encourage nonpoor people to buy insurance, avoid building in flood plains, and take other measures to protect themselves from catastrophic risks. More broadly, I believe that government assistance should always be based on need; the fact that a rich person sustains damage to his home in a catastrophic flood rather than in a flood caused by a stopped-up toilet is no reason for the government to compensate him.