Disastrous Government

The recent natural disasters in Myanmar and China have led to terrible suffering. I know that many people are doing everything they can to help the people who have been hurt. My comment is that it is clear that there were significant governmental failures in both cases. In Myanmar the government appears to be actively preventing people outside Myanmar from providing aid. In China the government appears to have failed to ensure that schools for poorer children were safe.

We had a similar governmental failure in the U.S., of course, in our response to hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In that case the U.S. government failed to support an orderly evacuation, failed to defend against predictable storm surges, and failed to rescue people after significant parts of the city flooded.

Natural disaster prevention and response is one of the key roles of government. We can’t protect ourselves individually against extreme situations, so we form a government to do it collectively. When the government fails in that task, it has failed in one of its most vital areas.

Viewed in that light, it is shocking that there has been no accountability in the Bush administration for the Katrina disaster. I think there is one clear lesson there: if you elect somebody who does not believe in government, you will get bad government when it matters. Of course a certain degree of delayed accountability was imposed in the 2006 elections, and more may come in the 2008 elections.

I think we can safely predict that there will also be no accountability for what happened in Myanmar. Dictators do not have to answer to the people.

It will be quite interesting to see what happens in China. The Chinese government is authoritarian, but Chinese history shows us that Chinese governments must be at least somewhat responsive to the people. Will they retrench, will they offer some minor sacrifices, or will they provide some real accountability? We’ll see over the next few months.


  1. fche said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 6:11 pm

    “The government” isn’t a “the” in the US. It’s a multi-layered thing with many different areas of responsibility, power, and electoral affiliation of the various leaders and representatives. Why does the federal executive branch seem to you as the appropriate place for blame for Katrina’s aftermath?

  2. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    May 30, 2008 @ 10:50 pm

    It’s true that the failed orderly evacuation was the responsibility of the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

    The poor construction of the levees, which failed to prevent the disaster, were constructed by the executive branch, in the form of the Army Corp of Engineers. This failure was not of course due to the Bush administration, but the administration failed to hold anybody accountable for it.

    Once the disaster occurred, it immediately and correctly escalated to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of the executive branch. They completely failed to handle it.

  3. etbe said,

    May 31, 2008 @ 5:03 pm

    fche: Can you cite an example of a country with a single-level government?

    The recent problems in China were not only due to poor preparation. There have been reports of Chinese soldiers preventing people from seeing the bodies of their children in situations were it would not be difficult to allow them.

    From watching the news I also received the impression that the Chinese government were less receptive to foreign assistance than they might have been (but nothing to compare with the government of Myanmar).

  4. fche said,

    June 1, 2008 @ 5:32 am


    > Once the disaster occurred, it immediately and correctly escalated …

    How do you figure that “correctly” part? Louisiana has its own emergency organization, and so does New Orleans. I’m sure it’s not like a bad tv show – “I’m from the FBI, and I’m taking over jurisdiction in your case. Stand aside.”


    There are certainly places like that, but that’s not the point. It seems like a common yet dreadful oversimplification to imagine a single “the government”, when in fact there are many physically disconnected parts, often with conflicting interests, jurisdictions, …

  5. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    June 2, 2008 @ 9:31 pm

    fche: the scale of the disaster was such that everybody needed to help immediately. FEMA should have been prepared to do that, in conjunction with the state and city services. That is simply good management.

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