Published October 7, 2022
As American conservatives, we are often in the habit of complaining about the foibles of big government—and indeed, complaining about the foibles of all government. Our eyes are peeled to spot any sign of corruption, incompetence, or overreach, and demand accountability and reform. We are not wrong to do so.
On the occasions when government actually does its God-given job, we might simply take it for granted and barely notice. However, we only earn the right to criticize government’s failures when we show ourselves able to recognize and show gratitude for its successes.
Natural disasters like the catastrophic Hurricane Ian are a case in point. While Ian is likely to rank as one of the deadliest storms in decades, and perhaps among the most damaging of all time, it is easy for us to ignore or forget just how much worse it might have been without the blessings of good governance. Some of these blessings are hard to miss, such as the heroic work of Coast Guard search-and-rescue teams or the unprecedented mobilization of FEMA resources to help the storm-shattered areas. Others, however, are the products of wise long-term policies with impacts we notice rarely, if at all.
One such policy is building codes. When most people buy a house, they have no idea how it’s put together behind the drywall and under the floors. If it looks sturdy, they assume it’s safe, and the builders responsible for shoddy construction may be long gone when a day of reckoning comes. So it was when Hurricane Andrew obliterated parts of south Florida in 1992, exposing major lapses in construction standards. After a thorough inquiry, the state of Florida implemented new statewide building standards for new construction that were the toughest in the country. The results were on vivid display after Ian, one of the strongest hurricanes on record to hit the U.S. mainland.
It is rare that in real life you get to test a repeat experiment, but Ian had the bad luck to come ashore at the exact same spot—Punta Gorda, Fla.—as another hurricane of equal intensity eighteen years ago, Hurricane Charley. Charley (thankfully a very small storm by size) had left behind it a narrow path of intense destruction reminiscent of Andrew, because most of the structures in its path pre-dated the new building codes. But since they were rebuilt according to the stricter standard, when Ian hit Punta Gorda, the vast majority of structures held firm, with many observers startled by the aerial photographs of pristine roofs surrounded by shattered trees.
Of course, it doesn’t matter how well-built your seaside house is, if the ocean bursts its banks and rises in a 15-foot storm surge. If you’re still inside, you may drown even if the house doesn’t budge. This underlines the importance of effective storm warning systems. Although some local and state officials have tried to justify delayed evacuation orders by falsely claiming otherwise, Ian’s path was remarkably well-forecast, despite unusually tricky forecasting conditions.
When Ian was still a disorganized swirl of clouds near Venezuela, the National Hurricane Center’s very first forecast showed Ian approaching southwest Florida as a dangerous and powerful hurricane. Five days later, it did—and amazingly, all 21 subsequent advisories before the storm came ashore located the eventual landfall location in the forecast cone.
This wasn’t some stroke of good luck but the result of several decades of concerted government investment in forecasting technology. The result has been truly extraordinary improvements in the precision and reliability of the computer models on which forecasters rely. Back in the day of Hurricane Andrew, the National Hurricane Center didn’t even attempt to forecast five days in advance; now five-day forecasts are as accurate as two-day forecasts used to be.
Of course, good forecasts are little use if people do not act on them, and it’s here that our tendency to throw stones at government failures can have life-or-death consequences. When we ignore the many ways in which good government can and does regularly save our lives, we are apt to ignore its warnings of impending threats, shrugging, “why should I trust the government?”
There is, of course, an important place for conservatives’ critique of bad government, and plenty of bad government deserves our attention. But we are likely to have more credibility in calling out these evils if we learn to start by giving thanks for what our God-given authorities do right.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.