Letters to the Editor


At a pivotal moment in his monarchy, Louis XIV declared: "Après mois, le deluge!" Hurricane Katrina could have made the same boast as her fury swept over New Orleans. Many secondary floods followed: grief, debris, tears, red tape and criticism. The world watched in horror as man-made tragedy compounded natural disaster. The finger of blame was pointed in many directions, but most observers missed the point. Failure was systemic, not "political" in the usual sense.

How can government be so dysfunctional at the hour of its citizens' direst need? It is not because politicians are inept; or mean-spirited; or "bad" people. It is because the interests of the people who run government are not aligned with the interests of the people they are elected to serve. Bad government, H. L. Mencken informed us, comes from good people who are looking out for themselves. "The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me," he wrote. "They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office. Their principal device to that end is to search out groups who pant and pine for something they can't get and to promise to give it to them.  Nine times out of 10 that promise is worth nothing. The tenth time is made good by looting A to satisfy B. In other words, government is a broker in pillage, and every election is sort of an advance auction sale of stolen goods."

Therefore, if people ' good, bad, or indifferent ' are put into a behavioral framework in which they are encouraged to behave in a manner opposed to the public interest, socially dysfunctional behavior will result. Success in politics is not achieved by independent thought or by principled action. A self-interested politician is apt to minimize personal responsibility, protect his own turf, resist outside interference, take no chances, delay (or avoid) critical judgments, and bow to popular pressures. Better government will only come from aligning private incentives to promote public benefits. This will not occur by electing "better" people, nor by concentrating more power in existing bureaucracies. President John Adams (1797-1801), warned that government seeks to turn every contingency into an excuse for amassing power within itself. It would be a shame if that lesson, too, was blown away by hurricane Katrina.