For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. Romans 8:18-21
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. James 1:27
The question: “How should Christians respond to people who are in need?” is rhetorical. We know from Scripture, from self interest, from experience living in community, and in other ways that we should help people who find themselves in acute distress. When talking about poverty, students occasionally ask: “What can I do to help?” My regular response is “You need to find someone that in some way needs help and help them. You need to be involved personally with ministry that is helping someone else. At Cedarville University we can help you find your ministry role.” While individual one-on-one service is a necessary, fulfilling element of life in Christ, living in a society that supports individual ministry activity is important also.
Saturday August 29, 2015 is the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall. The magnitude of the destruction caused by Katrina is staggering. Government response failure at the local, state and federal levels is well-documented. Government was not (and it is not) as prepared as the private sector to respond to natural disasters. Christians need to be ready willing and able to serve other people when the need arises as a result of a natural disaster. To help Christians live the necessary fulfilling element of individual service to others for the cause of Christ we need to live in a nation that supports private sector service.
The above iconic image illustrates Walmart’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Before the federal government had signed the orders for the government sponsored bureaucratic disaster response, Walmart and other private businesses were prepared and already engaging in humanitarian service on the ground.
The Mercatus Center at George Mason University researches market oriented ideas in a very practical and useful way. The Mercatus Center has analyzed disaster response during Katrina in their Gulf Coast Recovery Project. Russ Roberts interviewed Pete Boettke for an EconTalk podcast aired December 18, 2006. The title of the episode: “Boettke on Katrina and the Economics of Disaster“. [The first 10 minutes of the podcast are an excellent introductory description of Austrian economics] To illustrate the private sector response to Katrina I would like to quote around a minute of the podcast beginning at approximately the 16 minute mark (this is my transcription – any errors are mine).
Pete: The real heroes of that crisis were the church leaders who actually violated what they were told by the officials, by “boating clubs” who came in with their little skippers and got people out. On one of our trips we went and talked to a youth minister who actually was responsible for getting 100 families out of Center City New Orleans because he was able to network with other Baptist Churchs right outside of New Orleans. They used a van they and violated the rules that told them they couldn’t come back into the city. They would come in get the people in the van and take them 10 miles out to another person who would bring them to different churches. They would go back in and get another family. Russ: Illegally? Pete: Well you know I don’t know –violating the bureaucratic rules at the time about what was safe – these people were real heroes because at great risk to themselves they responded to take care of their parishioners and care about their flock. You know in that regard that’s how they interpret it so that’s the real vibrancy of civil society. If you look at East New Orleans with the Vietnamese Catholic Community there and how they decided to start rebuilding right away. They got into communities what you would imagine in a movie like the way the Amish do a house raising … and they would get together and try to do that against all the building codes (people would say no, no you can’t do that) and try to get peoples lives back. So we have seen a tremendous vibrancy in civil society they’re recovering and going outside the bureaucratic system to respond to be able respond the needs of the people on the ground.
When the bureaucracy failed individual people rose up to help those in need.
Walmart is often excoriated, sometimes by Christians, for their business practices. Walmart’s response (as an example of the private sector – many other firms both big-box and smaller entities responded in a similar manner) to Hurricane Katrina is a text book case illustrating what the private sector can do in times of emergency. Stephen Horwitz published a 2009 article in the Independent Review: “Walmart to the Rescue: Private Enterprise’s Response to Hurricane Katrina“. I’d like to share some information from the article. In the weeks following Katrina’s landfall, Walmart shipped 2500 truckloads to the affected areas and also provided trucks and drivers for others wishing to ship supplies into the disaster region. Walmart’s response was immediate, compared to the bureaucratic government response which took days and weeks. Walmart empowered its managers on the ground to make choices and decisions in real time.
Wind and flooding severely damaged the Walmart in Waveland, Mississippi. Assistant manager Jessica Lewis, who was unable to reach her superiors to get permission, decided to run a bulldozer through the ruins of her store to scoop up basics that were not water damaged, which she then plowed into a pile in the parking lot and gave away to residents. Lewis also broke into the store’s locked pharmacy to supply critical drugs to a local hospital. p. 516
Jessica was praised by Walmart executives for her actions. What would’ve happened to someone in government attempting to exercise this degree of autonomy? I hate to think. This could never happen with bureaucratic structure. By the time the government worker received permission to “serve by bulldozer” grass would be growing through the cracks in the asphalt in Walmart’s parking lot.
Walmart, as part of their “business continuity” plan, was able to see that the Hurricane was approaching and use their complex distribution system to begin to put resources in place for quick turnaround when the Hurricane made landfall. Government bureaucracy is simply not able to provide the kind of service the private sector can. It is in a society organized by private enterprise that we best have the opportunity to serve.