All Americans lament the death and suffering along the Gulf Coast. We grieve for those who have lost loved ones and precious property. We shudder at the cost of recovery and what it will mean for deficit-ridden federal and local budgets. But the spectacle of recent days painfully spotlights yet another deficit the country must come to grips with — a shortage of statesmanship.
The pre-Hurricane Katrina story is a swamp of political malfeasance. Failure to properly prepare for such a contingency, even when dire storm warnings were bearing down on the region, raise serious questions about well-paid public officials asleep at the switch.
In the storm’s aftermath, the statesmanship dearth is even more apparent. Many public officials are occupied with finger-pointing and political posturing. And they are outbidding themselves with other people’s money either to cover for their earlier failures or to demonstrate their "compassion." Thank God for the private sector, which in spite of roadblocks erected by government officials, has yielded a gusher of genuine compassion — quickly, efficiently and without saddling future generations with so much as a dime of the expense.
Will we find in this generation those truly exceptional leaders needed to chart a responsible course through this crisis? Politicians are ubiquitous, but where are the statesmen? And what’s the difference?
Statesmen are a cut above politicians, who seek office for the thrill of it or for the power it brings. Some politicians are better than others but statesmen rise above mere politics, the meat grinder of principles. The clever politician knows how to deftly manipulate the levers of power for personal advantage, but the statesman’s allegiance is to loftier objectives.
A statesman doesn’t seek public office for personal gain or attention. Like President Washington, he takes time out from a life of accomplishment to serve the general welfare. He stands for a principled vision, not for what he thinks citizens will fall for. He is well informed about the vicissitudes of human nature, the lessons of history, the role of ideas, and the economics of the marketplace.
He is a truth-seeker, which means he is more likely to do what’s right than what may be politically popular at the moment. You know where he stands because he says what he means and means what he says. He elevates public discussion because he knows what he’s talking about. He does not engage in class warfare, race-baiting or in other divisive or partisan tactics that pull people apart. He does not cynically buy votes with the tax dollars he takes from others. He may even judge his success in office as much by how many laws he repealed as by how many he passed. He takes responsibility for his actions.
When it comes to managing public finances — an especially relevant subject in light of massive appropriations for Katrina disaster relief — a statesman doesn’t view government at any level as a fountain of limitless largesse. He prioritizes. In an emergency, he exhibits the courage to cut less important expenses to make way for the more pressing ones.
Washington, in his Farewell Address, urged his countrymen to avoid "the accumulation of debt, … not ungenerously throwing upon posterity the burden which we ourselves ought to bear." His generation acquired the Revolutionary War debt, and his generation retired it. Over a century later, another statesman, Calvin Coolidge, vetoed popular programs to hold spending in check in order to pay off the debt his generation accumulated in World War I. He vetoed a bonus to Army veterans; he even vetoed twice the first large-scale farm subsidy proposed in U. S. history; he shunned short-term popularity with farmers for long-term financial security for his country. Every year of his presidency showed a federal budget surplus.
After World War II, another huge crisis, statesmen emerged to echo Washington’s plea to bear our generation’s debt responsibly. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his Farewell Address, surprised some by deploring the spending in his life long field of military defense. "We — you and I, and our government — must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow," Ike warned.
Statesmen will not saddle our children with debt from Hurricane Katrina. Yet Congress and the White House seem eager to spend tens of billions of dollars for the Gulf Coast without lopping more than a pittance off even the most obvious pork. For most of American history, disaster relief was primarily a private matter and secondarily a state and local government one. It was not a federal responsibility at all. For example, Washington, D.C., did not rebuild San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. That was a remarkably successful private affair, with minimal involvement even from state and local governments.
Is it too much to ask Archer Daniels Midland to forgo its ethanol subsidies in the face of the disaster in the South? Is there a statesman in the House who will rise in defense of suspending aid to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland or the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville? Can Senator Stevens be persuaded that not even a bridge to nowhere in Alaska is more important than keeping our monstrous debt from ballooning as help is sent to New Orleans?
Alas, if performance to date is any indication, America’s political class has become a sorry lot — addicted to profligate spending, incapable of making sensible choices, oblivious to the trillions of debt to which it blithely adds billions more at the drop of a levee.
Perhaps we should all take a moment to thank our great-grandchildren, mostly unborn. If we lack statesmen in this generation, we will have our disaster relief, our pork and our politics and they will pay for much of it.
Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Dr. Burton W. Folsom Jr. is a Mackinac Center senior fellow in economic education. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.