For the vast majority of the country, Hurricane Harvey, though a tragedy, also served as a reminder that political divisiveness is superficial. The outpouring of support from Americans even in areas far from the path of the storm demonstrated that rugged individualism is still a central animating tenet of civic life. Love of one’s own life and liberty demands respect of the same capacity in another. This attitude promotes a sense of duty, to help others, in the hopes that they would do the same if the situation were reversed. America, at its core, is still that nation de Tocqueville praised.
Unfortunately, a select few took too seriously the vicious platitude that a crisis should never be wasted and used the political questions surrounding availability of disaster relief resources as an opportunity to charge that conservatives, by nature distrustful of federal power, have no business advocating for federal intervention in deep-red Texas. Some even went so far as to suggest that, to be good ideologues, Republicans ought to have drowned rather than accept help from federally-managed agencies like the Coast Guard.
This rhetoric is, to some degree, useful, for it rips away the veil of compassion in which some on the left wrap themselves and reveals the sneering, smug mien of those who think they’ve caught conservatives in a hypocrisy so glaringly obvious as to fracture the very foundations of their ideology.
This is, of course, a particularly vile form of inanity, as it makes light of suffering when it affords the opportunity to appear politically superior. But not only does this rhetoric rob those who adopt it of the very humanity they claim as a moral imperative for their actions, it fundamentally miscasts right-wing understanding of the relationship between the individual and the state.
The right is suspicious of the federal government, yes. But this does not mean they reject wholesale its authority. When it comes to the preservation of rights, conservatives believe very strongly in the supreme and unchallengeable power of the federal government to create a system of laws which protect laws and pursue those who infringe on them. Among these inalienable rights are those of life and property. The Constitution, which the left often accuses the right of cleaving to too religiously, states in Article I, Section 8 that “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States.”
Disaster relief, then, because it provides protection of life and property in the most dire of circumstances, is among the few legitimate uses of federal authority. Congress, by appropriating funds for agencies like the Coast Guard or FEMA, is simply fulfilling its duty to provide for the general welfare of citizens. American governance works on the principle of social contract theory: individuals exchange, not their sovereignty, but their uncontested autonomy to act in certain areas. They exchange some freedom for the protection of an entity—the government—that promises to pursue and punish those who transgress their rights. Further, by drawing people into communities in order to better protect rights, the government is responsible for protecting the welfare of citizens; this means ensuring that the rule of law is operative, so that citizens are free to pursue their self-defined interests, so long as they respect the rights of their fellows. Individualism is not antithetical to the existence of the government; it is enhanced by it, made more attainable by a well-ordered and equitable system of laws which prevent man from exploiting man.
To suggest, then, that the right’s belief in rugged individualism makes acceptance of any federal aid hypocritical is patently ludicrous. Yes, the right believes in placing extremely binding constraints upon federal authority, but within the few areas where it does have agency, its actions are directed towards the protection of the individual. Conservatives might prefer local and private actors are the chief agents of aid when disaster strikes, as those who live locally are more likely to be moved to help those whose services benefit their lives, but this does not mean they reject federal help. It is only when the federal government attempts to exert its authority. The federal government has a responsibility to provide for the welfare of its citizens; it is when it tries to define what constitutes citizens’ welfare that the right begins to bristle.
Also published on Medium.