05 September 2005

Getting out of the way.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency could probably have done more good in Hurricane Katrina by simply not existing. How else can you explain an organization which is charged with facilitating emergency action, and instead turns it away, en masse?

Command and control style management isn't appropriate or useful in situations such as this one where the command elements don't appear to know anything more than the average person, and where vast numbers of volunteers willing to help share a common purpose. FEMA's job is not to say no to people who want to help. It is to encourage as many people as possible to get to places that need help.

Ordinary people with boats can save hundreds or thousands of lives in a flood. Sometimes a county supervisor in Northern Wisconsin is somehow more able to get a bus to evacuate people to the scene than a federal agency. Ordinarily, stealing a bus is a bad idea, but when it is a means of rescuing a bus load of people from a dangerous situation and it has been abandoned, it is an act of heroism.

Also, rather than universally decrying looters, we should, in times of disaster, recognize a general rule that property rights are subordinate to the needs of the community to perserve life and health and safety. Stealing food from grocery stores that would otherwise throw it away months later upon returning is no crime. Grabbing vehicles to get people to safety is acceptable. This doesn't mean that armed gangs grabbing television sets need to be protected, but the need for balance in situations like these is real.

Even in ordinary times good management often involves giving people a common purpose and doing your best to keep bureacracy and interference and hold ups out of the way. Wikis and open source software projects have taught us that it is possible to harness the efforts of thousands of strangers in a manner that does more good than harm.

Many people who praise laissez-faire capitalism fail to understand its real genius. There is no one in charge. There are simply some basic ground rules and common objectives which produce good results in a decentralized fashion. Our emergency management agency needs to learn to get out of the way of other people and countries who are doing good and focus instead on doing good itself.


LloydChristmas69 said...

Oh, and I'm sure you would have handled it much better if your name were FEMA. You voted for him, asshole.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

I voted for him? Where did you get that silly idea? Read a few more posts on this blog.

And, quite frankly, it would be hard for FEMA to have done a worse job of managing this tragedy, which is the point, although if you look here you will see precisely what I have to say about my own abilities in that regard and those of the current head of that agency.