COLUMN: Tornadoes devastate Oklahoma

Yesterday extreme tornadoes devastated parts of Oklahoma. Terrible, unforeseen destruction of a place where people live. What should be a people’s behavior in response to such an event? The problem with crises is they call for competent deliberate action by willing and rational thinkers. The response to the actual crisis should be methodical and goal-driven; so should be the attempt to plan and be ready for a possible future crisis. Digging out of such destruction requires collective action, intellectual compromise, and shared sacrifice.

The way to do all this, to deal with crises, and anticipate future ones, is captured by a word: government.

Advanced democratic governance is nothing more (or less) than a given people’s best attempt at collective action to solve problems. Government is philosophically good, because deliberate collective action is necessary. Problems do, in fact, exist. It is also possible to govern reasonably well, to deal with problems more and less effectively. The idea that government is inherently bad is untenable, and dangerous. It provides an excuse not to govern well. An excuse for bad government was precisely what Bill O’Reilly was providing when he said the extent of Hurricane Katrina’s destruction made the case for making government even less capable, because government failed to protect anyway. On this I partly agree with O’Reilly: The need is not for more government. Rather, the need is for better government. As both Karl Marx and Adam Smith knew, there is no inherent tension between a capitalist economy and a democratic politics.

Hurricanes and tornadoes clearly show there are contexts in which government fills a need. The same is true in economics: context matters. Keynes showed that under certain conditions, government can be especially helpful in producing a thriving capitalist economy. This is important, because those same Keynesian conditions — high unemployment, low inflation, and low interest rates — apply today. The structural conditions for a close relationship between government and capital right now exist. It is time for a large, government-financed fiscal stimulus to the domestic economy. We had fiscal stimulus 1 in 2009, at the same time as QE 1, then 2, then 3. We missed out on fiscal stimulus 2 and 3.

I look at US economic problems, and I can’t help but think that rational planning of government initiative right now is the best method for growth going forward.

Likewise, it is tough to watch the Oklahoma tornado and not think collective action of some sort is the way through the rubble. This collective action should take place as culture, in terms of prayer, charity, family, compassion, and hope.

But it should also take place as material redistribution, from those with enough to those who now desperately have nothing. The better civilization would combine both forms of collective action. The goal should be to intelligently design and execute the redistribution, rather than ignore away the necessity.

Collective action — government — is sometimes good, very good. And at important moments, necessary.

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