Grover Cared

Taking disaster relief lessons from a compassionate conservative

(Note: This essay originally appeared on National Review Online.)

The year 1887 was a tough year in Texas. Day after day brought hot, dry winds that parched the land. Farmers saw their crops wither and their cattle grow weak from thirst. Spirits faltered as desperate Texans prayed for rain, seemingly to no avail. Eager to help (at least with other people’s money), congressmen pushed through a bill to provide federal aid in the form of seed, but one man stood in their way — America’s 22nd president, Grover Cleveland. At a time when the federal budget boasted a large surplus, he vetoed the bill.

What kind of man could say no to free seed for his salt-of-the-earth brethren in distress? Was Cleveland, son of a Presbyterian minister, a cold, cruel and heartless Scrooge? Could this be the same man who once taught at the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind and cultivated a passionate, lifelong devotion to helping the sightless?

Yes indeed, one and the same. But the president was no mean-spirited miser. He simply knew what almost no one in Congress today understands: He knew the decisive difference between government and everything else. If he were alive to witness the tragic antics of Federal Emergency Management Agency in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, he might be sorely tempted to say, "I told you so."

A federal bureaucracy that shells out $438 per night to house New Orleans evacuees in a Manhattan hotel, blows $300 million on trailers that sit and rot many miles away from the intended recipients, stymies help from the Red Cross and other government departments, doles out $2,000 debit cards to just about anybody who needs a tattoo and a massage, and runs ice trucks to every corner of the country except where the ice is needed: These are not the fruit of the allegedly insensitive, laissez-faire 1880s. They are the product of our "compassionate" and gargantuan government, for which every need is an excuse to spend, grow, politicize and subsume.

In his veto of the Texas Seed Bill, Cleveland warned against a general disregard of the "limited mission" of the federal government. He didn’t think Congress or the president should torture the Constitution until it confessed that disaster relief was among the responsibilities of Washington, D.C. He felt that the country should heed the time-honored lesson that, as he put it, "Though the people support the Government, the Government should not support the people."

The welfare-statists of our time have saddled us with $8 trillion in debt, a federal tax burden seven or eight times that of Cleveland’s day, and a legacy of handout programs that have yielded little more than dependency and dysfunctional families. Billions in corporate welfare have exacted a similar toll on American enterprise. Cleveland tried to tell us that government has nothing to give anybody except what it first takes from somebody, and that a government big enough to give us everything we want is big enough to take away everything we’ve got. But somewhere along the way we fooled ourselves into thinking that government can help our brothers and sisters better, more quickly, and more cheaply than we can help them ourselves. What a sorry mess of pottage we’ve mortgaged our children’s future for.

Nonetheless, Americans are still the most generous charity givers on the planet. The best evidence that we haven’t entirely lost the instincts Cleveland appealed to is the fact that when Americans want to donate money to help others, they don’t make their checks out to FEMA or any other government agency.

Cleveland didn’t say no to drought relief because he thought hurting farmers didn’t deserve relief. He urged Americans in general and members of Congress in particular to give from their own hearts and personal resources. His veto message noted, "The friendliness and charity of our countrymen can always be relied upon to relieve their fellow citizens in misfortune." Aid from Washington, D.C., he wrote, only "encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character."

Those farmers in Texas got their aid, all right — as much as 10 times or more in private assistance as the amount that Cleveland refused to launder first through a federal bureaucracy.

Just six years before in another example of monumental generosity, Americans came to the rescue of their fellow citizens through private means. In 1881, Clara Barton mobilized her newly formed American Red Cross in its first major disaster-relief effort, pouring a gusher of money, food, clothes and volunteers into Michigan after a raging fire destroyed much of four counties. American history is replete with similar stories of people helping people in the absence of largesse from Washington, D.C.

As the Katrina recovery continues, the federal government will do what the federal government does best. It will talk, squawk and pontificate. It will hold hearings, point fingers and proclaim its good intentions. It will learn nothing and change little, for that is the nature of the beast and a big reason our Founders wanted it kept small and constrained in the first place. It will, as one of Franklin Roosevelt’s cronies once said, "tax and tax, spend and spend, elect and elect."

I suspect that meanwhile, in spite of the mind-numbing hurdles that big government puts in their way, the real heroes will be quiet folks who help their fellow citizens by what they give and by what they build. Grover Cleveland told us we could count on them because they, at least, have never let us down.

Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich.