To argue in favor of smaller or less costly government is not to demand no government at all. Opposition to, say, the federal government granting $505,000 to a thriving company that makes pet toothpaste and shampoo doesn’t lead inexorably to opposing disaster relief. Calls for reforming a Medicare program that is at least $38 trillion in debt aren’t tantamount to saying that the storm-stricken people of New York and New Jersey should be on their own. …

…[T]here is no reason to believe that federal disaster-relief programs are immune from the same bureaucratic waste and inefficiency that beset other government programs. FEMA spent $878 million on prefabricated homes after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, then allowed thousands of them to rot in storage lots because the agency’s own regulations prohibited them from being used in flood plains such as Louisiana’s. The agency also spent as much as $416,000 per family to house some families temporarily in the wake of Katrina. These and many other examples of mismanagement have been documented before Congress and elsewhere. …

Nor has federal disaster aid been immune from politics. History shows that the more politically important a state is, especially to a presidential re-election effort, the more likely it is to receive a federal disaster declaration. …

Mitt Romney is being attacked in some quarters because he suggested in a 2011 debate that some federal disaster-relief functions might be shifted to the states. Critics claim that this means he simply doesn’t care about people affected by disaster—that he is putting dollars and ideology before people’s lives. But might not a more locally focused disaster-relief program make sense?