“There has never been a challenge that the American people, with as little interference as possible by the federal government, cannot handle.” — Bobby Jindal, March 24, 2009
That was then.
This is now: 11 people dead in an oil rig explosion, fragile marshlands damaged, perhaps irreparably, uncalculated millions (billions?) in lost revenue for the tourism and fishing industries, and a short attention span nation transfixed by a compelling image from a deep sea camera, brown gunk billowing out from a hole in the ocean floor, Things Getting Worse in real time.
And Bobby Jindal, governor of Louisiana, off whose coast this tragedy is centered, is singing a new song, starkly at odds with what he said last year in a speech before the Republican faithful. Now he’s BEGGING for federal “interference.” He wants federal money, federal supplies, wants the feds to help create barrier islands to protect Louisiana wetlands from oil.
Not to pick on Jindal. He is but one prominent voice in a chorus of Gulf state officials who once preached the virtues of tiny government but have discovered, in the wake of this spreading disaster, the virtues of government that is robust enough, at a minimum, to help them out of a jam.
One hears pointed questions about President Obama’s engagement or lack thereof in the unfolding crisis. One hears accusations that the government was lax in its oversight duties and too cozy with the oil industry it was supposed to be regulating. One hears NOTHING about deregulation, about leaving the free market alone to do its magic.
You know what they say: it’s all fun and games till somebody gets hurt. Well, the Gulf Coast is hurt, hurt in ways that may take years to fully assess, much less repair. And the sudden silence from the apostles of small government and free markets is telling.
The thing is, their argument is not fundamentally wrong. Who among us does not believe government is frequently bloated, inefficient and bound by preposterous rules? Who among us does not think it is often wasteful, hideously complex and redundantly redundant?
Yes, government is not perfect. Nor is it perfectable. As adults, we should understand that. Any bureaucracy serving 309 million people and representing their interests in a world of 6.8 BILLION people, is likely always to have flaws. Thus, fixing government, making it more streamlined and responsive, is and will always be an ongoing project.
But instead of undertaking that project, people like Jindal rail against the very concept of government itself, selling the delusional notion that taxation and regulation represent the evisceration of some essential American principle. They wax eloquent about what great things the free market and the free American could do if government would just get off their backs.
One thinks of one’s meat oozing with salmonella, one’s paint filled with lead, one’s car getting 12 miles to the gallon, one’s self being breezily denied a job for reasons of race, creed, gender or sexual orientation and, yes, one’s ocean covered from horizon to horizon with a sheen of oil. And one shudders.
You see, government is not our enemy. Government is the imperfect embodiment of our common will. That is a not-so-fine distinction Jindal and others like him have lost in the rush to stoke the sense of grievance that burns in some conservative souls. It is a distinction they recalled with great clarity as oil began spilling upon their waters.
As there are no atheists in foxholes, it turns out there are no small-government disciples in massive oil spills. No, with BP oil soaking the sands of his coastline, Bobby Jindal turned righteously to that big, sometimes bloated, often intrusive federal government, and asked for help. He said, Send money, send resources.
You will notice he never once said, Send less.
• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may write to him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.