Friday, September 02, 2005

Blame Democracy

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many voices have been raised to ask who is to blame? This is a completely natural human reaction in the face of tragedy - people want to know why this happened. Some of the voices are blatantly partisan, seeking to pin blame on political opponents or push their own causes. Others, such as this NY Times Op-Ed They Saw It Coming, focus on explaining the how's and why's without any obvious agenda beyond wanting a safer New Orleans. The author also discusses what could be done in the future to protect the region from future hurricanes.

But if we're looking for something beyond natural forces to blame for broken levees, flooded cities and even less than perfect response plans, I think there's one obvious answer. Blame democracy. Democratic societies habitually ignore signs of danger. They tend to be reactive rather than proactive. Governments have priorities, which in a functioning democracy are set by the will of the people. Some have complained that the federal government did not properly fund levee construction. But until there's a crisis this wasn't a priority for the people (certainly not around the country and possibly not among folks in New Orleans either). A congressman who wants votes will emphasize on popular priorities like education and give short shrift to long term problems that may or may not materialize before that politician retires.

It takes a visionary leader to push against the competing political forces to implement (and fund) something which is important but doesn't seem pressing to the public. Contrary to popular assumptions about politicians I believe that such leaders do exist. But it's no surprise to me that the natural tendencies of our system prevail in most cases. As they perhaps did in New Orleans.

As Winston Churchill said, "Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried."

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