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
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
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
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.