What are the roles of the government in a life-threatening crisis?

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lorrainecaplan's profile pic

Lorraine Caplan | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is an interesting question within the context of states' rights versus the federal government.  In a nation of laws, power is rooted not only in rights, but also in duties.  What are the duties of state governments and the federal government in life-threatening crises? 

If the nation as a whole is in a life-threatening situation, for example, an invasion, the United States Constitution makes clear this is the duty of the federal government to deal with.  But when a life-threatening occurrence affects one or only a few states, for example, Hurricane Katrina or Hurricane Sandy, states that are the first to assert their power as states when times are good are often the first to ask for federal assistance. 

The fact is that federal assistance, in the form of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is a mandate established by executive order, and while I applaud its mission and believe it to be important and necessary, its original constitutional basis does seem rather tenuous. Since the agency is now part of the Department of Homeland Security, one could argue that it is operating in the interests of national defense, which does pass constitutional muster.  Clearly, when disasters happen, even to one state, we are more vulnerable as a nation to our enemies.

Nevertheless, state governments, in addition to having the rights "reserved to the states," have duties to those within their states as well, and it is remarkable how swiftly they are willing to delegate those duties to the federal government when disaster strikes, even as they are asserting their states' rights. 

The Constitution notwithstanding, it makes a great deal of sense for the federal government to manage these situations, since there are economies of scale, far greater expertise in emergency management, and the expectations of the American social contract, which is that the taxpayers of all states can and should bear the burden of extraordinary crises that may not affect their particular state. 

Not everyone, of course, will share this point of view, but this is the aspect of the question that struck me.

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readerofbooks's profile pic

readerofbooks | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

Posted on

This is a question that many people will have opinions about. In other words, debate will be natural. That said, there are a few things that most people will agree with. 

Most people will say that the most important function of a government is to secure the freedom and rights of its citizens. In light of this, the role of the government is to safeguard this principle in all circumstance.

So, in light of an life-threatening crisis, the government should do all within its power to protect people. If there is physical danger, then the government has to protect the physical well-being of its citizens. The government has things in place - fire departments, police departments, medical centers, the national guard (when necessary), and the military. 

If the physical well-being of its citizens is secure, then a government must secure the freedom and rights of its citizens. 

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