Crazy About Federalism

Hurricane Irene is come and gone now, but in her wake, we have some discussion about how the agencies that deal with hurricanes and related problems are federal agencies in the US and how that’s apparently a bad thing in the eyes of some libertarians. Yglesias responds to a libertarian diatribe against the National Weather Service by imagining the alternative:

“Maybe the Gulf Coast states who are most often afflicted by hurricanes would form a consortium to do the monitoring and there would be constant disputes between the members about what constitutes a fair share of the budget to contribute. States further up the northeastern coast that are only rarely afflicted would try to free ride. Hurricanes asides, instead of having a single National Weather Service tracking the weather, maybe we’d have three or four private firms all reproducing each others’ data and selling it to clients. We’d have systematically higher costs and maybe (?) a slightly higher quality product.”

Meanwhile Ta-Nehisi Coates has the goods on Ron Paul’s assertion that the 1900 Galveston hurricane somehow “proves” that FEMA is unnecessary.

Dealing with a threat that can impact several states at once (like natural disasters) seems like a perfectly good role for a federal government. This is why federalized nation states usually designate the military to be a federal responsibility. Military threats impact multiple and indeed all members of any federal unit. Hawaii didn’t have statehood in 1941, but if it did one cannot imagine even Ron Paul saying that Hawaii should just deal with the Empire of Japan without any federal help.

Just because a hurricane or an earthquake doesn’t put on a uniform and pick up a gun doesn’t mean that it isn’t in a similar category of threat as an armed invasion. In both cases it makes sense to pool resources and provide better outcomes for everyone instead of cleaving to abstract arguments about the 10th Amendment. Here’s where that Burkean respect for established institutions, thought they may be flawed, might be of service to American conservatism. It seems insane to dismantle the National Weather Service or FEMA simply because they offend some abstract libertarian argument about state power.