Disaster Relief and Fiscal Responsibility: Moral Imperatives for Elected Leaders

Disaster Relief and Fiscal Responsibility: Moral Imperatives for Elected Leaders

One Hurricane Harvey sidebar concerns the politics of disaster relief. There’s been some media buzz about the Texas congressional delegation’s opposition to the Super Storm Sandy relief bill a few years back and whether Northeastern representatives now might take revenge (it appears that the answer is no).

There is always a risk that we will treat our own perceived needs differently than we treat the expressed needs of others. Recognition of this risk underlies the time-honored tradition in jurisprudence that one ought not to be judge of one’s own cause.

It also may have inspired the work of an 18th century philosopher, Immanuel Kant.

Kant’s view is that the moral justification of an action relies in part upon its generalizability. A right action is one we would choose, not only for ourselves, but for anyone in a similar situation, as if our choosing it would make it become law.

Consider federal disaster relief in this light.

If I were a member of Congress from Houston, I would be advocating for relief for the millions affected by the storm. I would argue both that this is an appropriately compassionate response to their suffering and a recognition of their diminished capacity to alleviate this suffering themselves.

Kant would ask, would I consider this claim for relief to be valid regardless of whose district was affected? Should the relief I am seeking be granted in all such cases of disaster, as if required by law? Or am I making a special pleading that my constituents be treated differently than others?

If I were a member of Congress from New York City, I might respond to the plea for aid by asking tough questions about the nature and quantity of aid to be provided. I might insist that Congress has a duty to ensure that the resources deployed for disaster relief are in proper proportion to the weight of that disaster vis-à-vis other national priorities and are deployed effectively. This sense of duty might lead me to work against some aspects of the relief bill, or even to oppose the final measure.

Kant would ask, would I consider such critical examination of a relief bill to be valid regardless of whose district was affected? Should all such relief measures be similarly reviewed, as if required by law? Or am I engaging in score-settling or political posturing because the victims, in this case, are not my direct responsibility (nor my electorate)?

We are not allowed to be judges in our own cause in a court of law, and for good reason. But the legislative process does not lend itself to such prohibitions. Instead, our representative democratic system allows political leaders to be advocates for their own constituents’ cause, and it balances that advocacy, in theory at least, against the more dispassionate judgment of the rest of the representative body.

Effective leadership depends in part on the leader’s trustworthiness. One foundation for such trust is consistency . . . not slavish adherence to a false claim or a failed idea, but consistent reference to and reliance upon fundamental beliefs about good government, good policy and good conduct.

We need leaders who will hold themselves accountable for such consistency, as if such accountability was required by law.

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