Conservatives attack federal disaster relief because it goes to the heart of the philosophical debate between progressivism and conservatism. (More)

As Hurricane Irene approached the East Coast recently, leading conservatives stood up not to fight for a robust federal effort to aid the communities that would be impacted, but instead to challenge the idea that federal disaster relief should be a priority. For example, House GOP majority leader Eric Cantor said that disaster relief should be provided only if the costs were offset by cuts to other parts of the federal budget and, as the New York Times reported:

Representative Ron Paul, the Texas Republican who is seeking his party’s presidential nomination, has gone beyond that view to argue that the federal government’s role in disaster preparation and relief should be cut substantially. Mr. Paul said he saw little value in the Federal Emergency Management Agency, saying the federal approach has given birth to an intrusive bureaucracy and supplants what should be an area for private insurance.

“The bleeding heart will say, well, we have to take care of them,” Mr. Paul said on “Fox News Sunday,” calling FEMA “a gross distortion of insurance” and saying that workers for the agency “hinder the local people, and they hinder volunteers from going in.”

“So there’s no magic about FEMA,” he concluded.

Rep. Cantor had a similar response when tornadoes devastated Joplin, Missouri, and the GOP has continued to push for cuts in the budgets for FEMA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association despite the critical roles those agencies play in predicting, preparing for, and dealing with the consequences of natural disasters.

While Winning Progressive is used to hearing today’s GOP take absolutely ridiculous positions on issues, we were even a bit shocked to see the GOP questioning the federal government’s role in disaster relief. For one thing, after the debacle that occurred during Hurricane Katrina due to the Bush administration’s budgetary cutbacks, privatization, and crony governance at FEMA, you would think that the GOP would be hesitant to make disaster relief an issue they speak out strongly on. And more generally, few things a more important or appropriate job for government than helping our fellow Americans get through and rebuild from a natural disaster.

Upon further reflection, however, we realized that the importance and appropriateness of federal action on disaster relief is exactly why the GOP is attacking it. In short, disaster relief is a huge flashpoint for conservative zealots because it goes to the heart of the philosophical debate between progressivism and conservatism.

On the progressive side, we believe that while government cannot and should not do everything, it can and should provide societal goods and services that individuals and the free market cannot or will not provide on their own. And disaster preparedness and relief is a prime example of such goods and services, as individuals cannot possibly be expected to deal with the full impacts of an earthquake, hurricane, or other natural disaster, and the “free” market is likely to respond to such disasters with price gouging and is certainly not going to fund rebuilding public infrastructure that is destroyed by the disaster.

Unfortunately, today’s conservatives have a pathological hatred of anything that suggests government might be able to help average Americans. So, they work to cut the budgets and preparedness of disaster relief agencies not only so they can free up more money for tax cuts for the wealthy, but also because they realize that inadequate government responses to disasters help undermine people’s faith in government as an instrument for good.

In order to challenge this ideological zealotry, we must reaffirm the fundamental role that the federal government can and must play in disaster relief, and make sure that disaster relief agencies like FEMA are sufficiently funded to be able to do their jobs effectively. We know from the Clinton administration’s reformation of FEMA, and from the federal government’s response to the tornadoes that swept through the South this past May that federal disaster relief works. The key now is just to make sure that conservative ideological zealots do not prevent it from doing so.

(Cross-posted at Winning Progressive)