In the wake of the devastating tornado in Oklahoma early this week, some Republicans from Oklahoma have suggested that federal funding may be necessary to provide aid to help pay for the reconstruction of the damaged and destroyed homes and other buildings and infrastructure. Tom Coburn, a Republican Senator from Oklahoma has objected to federal aid which is not offset by other spending cuts but this is only because he believes that the FEMA budget will be more than enough to cover the expenses. This is reminiscent of the argument between New Jersey governor Chris Christie and house Republicans when the governor castigated those who were opposed to the sixty-billion dollar spending bill to help aid in the recovery after hurricane Sandy caused damage to the Northeast. Chris Christie, himself a supposed contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, even rejected calls for the relief aid bill to be offset by cuts to other discretionary spending. These instances of demands for federal aid are odd coming from the party that claims the mantles of small government, constitutional government, and fiscal restraint because hurricane, tornado, flood, or any other disaster relief from the federal government is antithetical to all of these positions. When Republicans in the government advocate for spending money on disaster relief they shoot themselves in the foot by contradicting the principles they espouse and claim to believe in.
The Republicans show themselves to be no more than political animals when they forsake all of their supposed principles as soon as any adversity, in the form of a natural disaster, washes up on their shores. Nowhere in Article I, Section 8, the enumeration of powers, or anywhere else in the Constitution is disaster relief or emergency aid an authorized function of Congress. In plain language, this means that any legislation which appropriates such funds is unconstitutional. Being the party which so often wraps themselves in the holiness of the Constitution to justify their actions and differentiate themselves from the Democrats, it betrays serious questions of legitimacy and sincerity when they are so willing to take actions that are unauthorized by the United States’ founding document. They are thus guilty of the same charge which they ferociously aim at their Democratic opponents. This causes them to lose force when arguing against other unconstitutional legislation by discrediting them as Constitutional conservatives.
There are very negative side-effects when government taxes and borrows money to spend on disaster relief. This goes beyond the exorbitant spending bills that Congress specifically appropriates and includes the billions of dollars used by FEMA and other federal agencies in emergency scenarios. When an activity is subsidized, more of that activity results, this is a fundamental law of economics. By subsidizing aid to disaster victims, the federal government socializes the costs of individuals to live in areas which are susceptible to disasters in which they would not otherwise choose to live. If individuals were not supported by the taxpayers then they would not choose to live in such risky areas.
People living in these disaster prone areas would understand that if natural disasters occurred, they would be fully responsible for covering the costs which they imposed. The higher price and risk of losses would give most people to relocate to safer areas and in this way less money would be wasted and perhaps hundreds of lives would be saved. This is not to suggest that anyone should be prevented from living in dangerous areas if they so choose as no one should be interfered with if they are taking actions that do not harm others. If someone chooses to live in a higher risk area, that person should be the only one who is responsible for bearing the associated costs. Someone who lives in Pennsylvania should not be forced to subsidize flood insurance for people who live underwater in New Orleans or pay for tornado repair in a place that has become known as “tornado alley.” Individuals should be allowed to live anywhere they choose, so long as they alone bear the costs and rewards of their own choices.
Changing the economic considerations of people living in disaster prone areas altogether changes the questions that arise about what should be done to help disaster victims. One common objection to the argument against federal aid is that if it is not provided, those who are struck by disasters will be helpless to do anything for themselves, but we can see now that this is a false conclusion. The choice between disaster victims with federal aid and disaster victims without federal aid incorrectly frames the argument in a false dichotomy.Instead, when federal aid and support is removed, the incentive to make poor decisions is also removed and people will mitigate their own risk either by purchasing extensive insurance or simply moving to a safer location. This means that the only people who will remain in high risk areas are those who have enough money to sustain any losses that might occur in the event of a disaster.
A historical example of individuals locating according to subsidies comes from the frontier American West when the government granted plots of land to settlers who simply agreed to move out and cultivate the land. The frontier was a high risk area due the lack of established settlements, threat of confrontation with Native people, and isolation. The subsidies granted by the government incentivized settlers who would have otherwise remained in the established population centers to accept the risk of moving out west. Therefore if federal aid is removed, thenthe reverse effect will occur. If millions of people are not given the economic incentive to locate in high risk areasthen we will never again see the tens of thousands of poor and displaced victims after severe storms, as we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Even more egregious is the charge that Republicans, in advocating federal aid for local disasters, are contradicting their entire (stated) legislative philosophy, which is that small government is the ideal and the “free” market is the best way to allocate resources, not government. By conceding that the federal government may be necessary in the case of disasters or other unplanned events, the Republicans throw their whole argument under the metaphorical bus. Once a Republican concedes that some resource allocation problems are just too much for the market to handle and they require the heavy hand of coercive government taxation to correct, they have given the big government wing of politics and society all of the ammunition that they need.
If it is conceded that the free market just can’t handle disasters, then the Republicans can no longer make their arguments from principle. From this perspective, they agree with Democrats and Communists alike that government does need to intervene in the market, they only disagree about the extent to which this should be true. Arguing about where the line should be drawn rather than arguing about fidelity to principles is an argument that is already lost. The reason is that the matter being discussed is now subjective and it is impossible to win a subjective argument without simply talking past the other side.
If Republicans were able to remain true to their principles of small, constitutionally limited government and free markets, they would be in a defensible position. They could argue effectively against the liberals and Democrats with charges of violating principles of the free market or the Constitution. However, once they themselves have accepted to reject their own principles and argue over arbitrary middling positions about how much those principles should or should not be violated, they have removed any sense of seriousness or truth from their own position and thus compromised any arguments they could otherwise make.