Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Privatizing Disaster Relief

In the wake of Hurricane/Frankenstorm/Superstorm Sandy, there's been some debate about privatizing disaster relief, mostly because Mitt Romney seems to be in favor of that.

There's one problem: we already privatize disaster relief. We already have private, for-profit organizations that respond to events like hurricanes.

They're called insurance companies.

Right now Allstate, Progressive, and State Farm are getting lots and lots of calls about flooded homes, missing cars, ruined furniture. They will reimburse lots of people for the damages they suffered. Some of their customers will be happy, some will be unhappy. But for many people, if not most, their private insurance company is going to be their primary means of dealing with this catastrophe.

We also have private, non-profit organizations that deal with this, like the Red Cross. Many people will turn to churches and schools for help.

But there are some things that neither insurance companies nor the Red Cross can deal with. And for those issues, we have government. State Farm repair the New York City subway system or restore power to Manhattan. The Roman Catholic Church cannot evacuate entire cities. That's what governments do. And governments at different levels handle different aspects of this. Local fire departments put out fires and rescue people. State governments make decisions about what roads should be closed, where to send the National Guard. And the Federal government declares various areas disaster areas, and sends in lots of money and people with various highly specialized skills. The Federal government also, of course, runs the weather prediction agencies that kept us all informed about what was going to be happening and when.

We have a disaster-response system that incorporates private for-profit, private non-profit, and governmental agencies. Each group handles the things that it is best equipped for.

It isn't a perfect system, because responding to disasters is one of those things that, by definition, cannot be done perfectly. It's also not a perfect system because democracy is not a perfect system, and democracy is not a perfect system because human beings are not perfect.

But the system works about as well as it can. It's odd that people like Mitt Romney, who claim to be so patriotic, sometimes fail to appreciate the genius of the American system.

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