One of the illogical, but seemingly constant, facets of life is to read articles like this one  where governments are blamed for natural disasters. While it might be satisfying to take a cheap shot at Pakistan for such unrealistic expectations, the problem is that such expectations are around the world. The Bush administration was blamed for its response to Hurricane Katrina (more on that in a little), and Japan’s government was blamed for the earthquake and tsunami. Such incidents would be ridiculous if they weren’t so offensive. Why do governments get blamed for natural disasters in the first place?
After all, governments are not God. They cannot end droughts and fires with the wave of a hand. They cannot make the earthquake or the volcano erupt. They cannot stop the floods, or prevent hurricanes. I don’t understand why they should be expected to either. Governments (usually) do not tell people that they have to build their cities in bowls that are under sea level. Instead, governments are expected to keep the rivers from changing their course when it threatens to pass their city by and leave it a ghost town, expected to build the levees and seawalls when the waters threaten, expected to provide aid to disaster victims at the drop of a hat. We expect human governments to be omniscient (knowing exactly what is needed when and where), omnipotent (able to overcome the ravages of any natural disaster), and omnipresent (able to be wherever someone in need is). This is not realistic. We cannot expect human governments to do that which only God is capable of doing. We will only be disappointed by expecting too much of people that is more than they can fulfill.
The tendency to blame governments for natural disasters is a very old one. In fact, the Chinese enshrined it, under the Confucian philosopher Mencius, about 2500 years ago in the “Mandate of Heaven,” where droughts and floods and natural disasters showed the lack of legitimacy of a government. Likewise, the Bible itself also includes two chapters (Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28) that show that natural disasters are often the sign of divine discontent against a society, with the aim being for the nation to repent of their sins to avert further disaster. But people are hard-headed; they expect their human leaders to be able to make life easy and comfortable so they can avoid having to deal with the responsibilities of time and chance. After all, the people who die in natural disasters do not die because they are particularly wicked. But their deaths are warnings that without changed behavior and attitudes that more disasters are on the way. And, let us be blunt, this viewpoint itself requires a belief that the universe is orderly and has purpose and meaning. If you believe that the universe is random and unplanned and meaningless than you have no reason to blame God or government for one’s disasters; you were simply unlucky.
This is where the inconsistencies of humanity bother me. People act as if they are autonomous and free, resist regulations, and generally deny the practical existence of God’s sovereign providence under normal circumstances. Then, as soon as a disaster happens, people blame God, blame government, and do everything except look at their own responsibilities and their own contribution to the problems. They look for a handout–for government-mandated home insurance, for rebuilding funds, for food and water supplies. This gets to be rather irritating after a while. After all, people do not listen when the government says (if the government says) that such a such place is a flood zone, or such and such place is within the storm surge. No, they want to be by the river, or on the coast. And then once a storm hits or a flood comes, something any reasonably rational purpose would expect every so many years, people are upset that the government could let this disaster happen. Often, such a disaster is something that just tends to happen naturally, without any man-made fault, except the fault of listening to warnings. And yet people view government like they view God–they want nothing to do with the rules and regulations and restrictions but want help with the rub of the genie’s lamp.
The fact that people blame government for things that government has basically no blame in (such as natural disasters, or the fact that people live in harm’s way, given the fact that this whole earth is in harm’s way) makes assessing government when it really is at fault more difficult. We have to be much better at parsing out blame and responsibility. We cannot expect government to be able to help us when our buildings collapse when we violate building codes, generally try to live far away from government interference, and build in places that are directly in the path of natural disasters. We cannot expect government to be both responsive to our every need and complaint but not tax us for the pleasure, and not regulate us to make sure that such payments do not become a recurring expense. Help from the government always comes with strings attached (eventually); we ought to be aware of this and plan accordingly. We cannot prevent disasters from happening to us completely, but at least we should not go out of our way to tempt disaster.
For there are some disasters brought about by the absence of legitimate government. Those people in the nation of Pakistan currently wondering why their weak government cannot cater to their every whim ought to be inclined to help make that government stronger, at least a little bit, lest they suffer the fate of Somalia, where starvation threatens those lands without any effective government for the last two decades. If you have no government at all, no functioning civil society, there is no storage for the drought or the flood, nothing but endless misery and suffering, and dependency on the inconstant aid of the United Nations. If you want to avoid that fate, you have to build a functioning community yourself. But that is, alas, far easier said than done. We ought to depend on government less and community more, but who is there in this age of alternating tyranny and anarchy who can build a functioning and legitimate community?