Crisis: When You Need a Functional Government

The crisis in Japan has us all on the edge of our seat. We feel for the Japanese people – those displaced from their homes, those questioning the safety of their region, and the handful who remain at the reactors working to avert a greater disaster. Beyond the nuclear threat, the earthquake and tsunami have caused massive chaos, loss of life, pain and fear.

At moments like this, we often put aside politics. Right or Left, we are all sending our thoughts and prayers to the people of Japan. Democrats, Republicans, independents and people around the world all hope thatingenuity, well-designed precautions and a little luck prevent the catastrophe from expanding.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t political lessons as well, and these events should spark discussions about policy and politics. It’s not liberal or conservative to wish all imaginable luck for the people of Japan, but there will be disagreements about what else we take from this tragedy – and how it relates to our own domestic political conversation. As a liberal, the events we’re watching unfold around the world only re-enforce the prerogative to have a well-functioning, robust government that can help confront challenges citizens can’t tackle alone.

Even libertarians agree that emergency response is a valid role for government. Yet in the recent budget battles in the states, the unions of first responders – police officers, firefighters and emergency personnel – are under attack and are being scapegoated for all budget woes. In Washington, proposed cuts by House Republicans would limit the effectiveness of our federal emergency response apparatus. In particular, there were cuts proposed to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – the agency that forecasts weather patterns - including tsunamis.

In Japan, we see displaced families being quickly moved around the country as government agencies help find them homes and temporary support. In America, we hear rhetoric against big government social services. In Japan, we wonder how effective safety regulations and oversight has been at the nuclear facilities. In America, the right-wing tells us government is over-regulating business. The world prepares to support the Japanese people, rebuild the Japanese economy and bolster the Japanese government. In recent polls, Americans were in favor of a reduction in international aid.

A catastrophe like this reminds us that there is a role for a functioning, effective government – the kind of entity conservative thought-leader Grover Norquist famously wants to shrink to the point that he could “drown it in a bathtub.” We remember that we need to invest our pooled resources in shared institutions and strong infrastructure that work toward our common goals as a society. How to invest in a government that does that is more productive than divesting from and undermining our public institutions.

It’s also not just the government’s job to avert disasters, nor is it a single corporation’s responsibility or the role of a single utility company When a problem this massive emerges, we’re all in this together. Public, private and non-governmental resources all work to help the displaced. There is no good way for libertarian, Randian ideals to respond. We need collective action, to work together, to look out for each other. The people of Japan need it to respond to their crisis; and we need to do the same to respond to ours.

There may be other important political conversations to come from this incident. I believe it would be too simple to say that the liberal reaction is to oppose nuclear energy. It would be too tone-deaf for the liberal response to merely blame climate change for the earthquake. It would be too opportunistic for the liberal lesson to be that we need a larger budget for international aid.

These are all valid notions – and discussions I hope we’ll have as a country. But beyond those concrete policy debates, there is a larger discussion about the role of our government – a conversation that It’s A Free Country has been hosting with its First Principles series. It’s a timely conversation as well: As we face the threat of a government shutdown, we remember that this isn’t just a political game. When there’s an earthquake, a nuclear meltdown or any one of a thousand everyday issues, we need a functioning government at the service of its people.

So let’s have that debate as Washington fights over keeping our government operational and as states argue over how to balance their budget. And in the meantime, let’s send our support to organizations helping the rescue efforts in Japan, and send all the Japanese people our thoughts and prayers.

Justin Krebs is a political organizer and writer based in New York City. He is the founder of Living Liberally, a nationwide network of 250 local clubs that create social events around progressive politics, and author of "538 Ways to Live, Work and Play Like a Liberal."