by Jerry O’Driscoll
Who should provide disaster relief? Who does provide disaster relief? In the Weekend Wall Street Journal, David Beito of the University of Alabama provides the answer for the victims of the devastating tornado in Tuscaloosa: it’s Wal-mart, churches, students, private individuals and, critically, talk radio.
The four Tuscaloosa Clear Channel stations organized a wholly voluntary relief effort. Beito recounts how, instead of taking Spring break, “students in the Greek system at the University of Alabama and historically black Stillman College stayed to cook more 7,000 meals per day.” The radio stations take calls from individuals in need and broadcast what is needed, by whom and where. Sometimes within minutes volunteer assistance arrives.
Clear Channel caters mainly to a conservative white audience, but the damage was concentrated in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. No matter.
The relief effort is exemplar for the spirit of voluntarism that typifies America. It was repeated in the aftermath of Katrina, when the federal government so utterly failed. FEMA was not only incompetent, but interfered with private relief efforts. The Baptist Church did more than the federal government.
Private efforts were critical even in relief efforts at the Pentagon on 9/11. Costco customers were asked to purchase pallets of water, which Costco then had delivered at its expense to the site. (Costco’s customers received personal recognition from the Pentagon.)
David Beito authored From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State: Fraternal Societies and Social Services. He demonstrated how charity and welfare were once provided through voluntary associations. Often the poor funded their own services.
I’d actually been thinking of Beito’s work as a result of a discussion of Hayek’s Constitution of Libertyat Coordination Problem. Hayek is often criticized for ceding so many responsibilities to the state. But the Anglo/American tradition of voluntarism is not replicated on the European Continent. How likely is it that someone who did not grow up in that tradition could conceive of what individuals can accomplish on their own without the state? Even today’s Americans forget until something like Tuscaloosa happens.