Eric Cantor’s message on Hurricane Irene is basically “no helping hurricane victims without cutting some other federal expenditure that might help the poor”. To translate: America doesn’t exist as a community whose members feel obligations towards each other. Outrage is the appropriate reaction to Cantor. However, looking past the outrage there is much material to draw from the Hurricane Irene case to push back hard against the Republican small government crusade, according to some polls the one policy area where they have public support.

For Republicans, aside from the dictates of religious ideology, nothing but economic incentives count. The system punishes when people don’t buy your products or your stocks. That is the only idea of “accountability”. Where does this dogma leave customers of the private company, Connecticut Light and Power, or United Illuminating, when over 600,000 of them are left without power in the wake of Hurricane Irene. One town’s mayor was quoted as saying ”we did our job” and were now just waiting to CP&L crews to arrive to advise them where the live wires were. Widespread complaints about slow response from these private companies and lack of information finally produced liaison officials, called revealingly “account executives”. One such liaison in Stonington was a lawyer from CL&P’s parent company NorthEast Utilities (United Illuminating has a parent company also, UIL Holdings).

No wonder US Representative Joe Courtney is pressing for federal assistance. The federal government is a democratic institution structured for accountability to citizens. Is there a North East government to hold NorthEast Utilities accountable?

In San Bruno, California eight people died when a natural gas pipe line ruptured. It turned out the company Pacific Gas and Electric had installed a defective pipeline in 1956. A National Transportation Safety Board issued a report August 30 on the incident, blaming it on poor planning, resulting in the inability to realize that a pipe had ruptured. Crucial work to close the ruptured value was left to an off-duty mechanic who was “self-dispatched”. The California Public Utilities Commission was criticized for lax oversight and “trusting the company.”

Since the Republican drive for smaller government would, if successful, lead to fewer public boards, weak or strong, overseeing the private companies providing public services, why isn’t it fair to see the small government crusade as a way to let corporations do a better job ripping us off? Americans need to reverse the Republican mantra of “good private institutions, bad public institutions.”

If you are a citizen without the power to stop buying the product (power, light and natural gas) and no say on what the provider of the public service does, then you are put in a passive position. At some point democratic institutions are incompatible with a passive citizenry.