The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Hurricane Sandy and the Perils of Nanny State Governance

The New York Times notes that scientists and flood experts have been warning about the risks of flooding in New York for years and have suggested everything from levees to floodgates in New York Harbor to minimize potential damage. Yet neither the city nor the state government has taken serious steps to act on these suggestions:

With an almost eerie foreshadowing, the dangers laid out by scientists as they tried to press public officials for change in recent years describes what happened this week: Subway tunnels filled with water, just as they warned. Tens of thousands of people in Manhattan lost power. The city shut down. . . .

“A fair question to ask is, have we been as focused as we need to be for emergency preparations,” said the former official, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to jeopardize ties to the administration. “We’ve just been lucky. We need hardening for the risk we’ve always faced. Until things happen, people aren’t willing to pay for it.”

A state report on rising sea levels, issued on the last day of Gov. David A. Paterson’s administration in 2010, suggested that erecting structural barriers to restrain floodwaters could be part of a broader approach, along with relocating buildings and people farther from the coasts.

Here in New York we have a very busy government. It’s worried about the kinds of fats we eat and the size of the soft drinks we buy, and there is no shortage of regulations affecting businesses, street vendors, and individuals. But in all this exciting fine tuning, nobody seems to have bothered to think about the much greater task of keeping floodwaters out of the subway system. Admittedly, getting public support and finding the money for flood protection would be hard, but it is exactly that kind of hard job that governments are supposed to do. Leadership is getting the important things done, not looking busy on secondary tasks while the real needs of the city go quietly unmet.

The problem with nanny state governance isn’t just that it’s intrusive. It isn’t just that it stifles business with over-regulation, and it isn’t just that it empowers busybodies and costs money. It’s that it distracts government from the really big jobs that it ought to be doing.

Mayor Bloomberg has done an admirable job under great pressure as the city reels from Sandy’s attack. But an ounce of prevention beats a pound of cure. The city needed flood protection for its subways and electricity grid—and it didn’t get it. If the Mayor had spent less time and less of his political capital focusing on minutiae, this storm could have played out very differently.

Published on October 31, 2012 3:34 pm