Monday, August 15, 2005


So I'm wondering what Katrina can teach about our respective political theories here. Richard has expressed a concern that a paternalistic government creates, in its turn, an infantilized citizenry incapable of the good ol' fashioned self-reliance that has been the backbone of America. There is plenty to that argument — I have countered that the question isn't the binary Should we or shouldn't we have a government that takes care of people? but rather a question of How much care is appropriate before the government begins usurping necessary freedoms and turning individuals into dependents?

I should start by writing what I think is axiomatic: that a natural disaster of this magnitude — with the level of human suffering, distress, and deprivation that flows from it — is a matter for the government to handle. And by handle, I mean (1) to take all necessary and available preemptive steps to minimize the harm, (2) to provide timely emergency relief in the immediate aftermath of the event, and (3) to assist in the long-term reconstruction effort. If banding together to help one another under circumstances like these isn't part of the Social Contract, then I want to know what value I'm actually getting out of the darned thing.

As for what level of government has ultimate responsibility to take care of us in a situation like this . . . I'm inclined to leave that matter to the pundits and politicians to decide in that classic "ugly underbelly of deliberative democracy" way of theirs. Actually, now that I think of it, I won't. Responsibility lies with all the governments: local, state, and national. And if they can't coordinate among themselves to help people, then at some point we'll need to get all the culprits together in the same room and chew them out all at once.

But what I want to explore here is a more specific matter, and that is the complete breakdown of the social order in New Orleans that we witnessed after the levees broke. Many of us were surprised to see conditions deteriorate so rapidly, and to hear and read (admittedly often secondhand) the horrific stories of looting, rape, murder, carjackings, etc., the likes of which were not, to my knowledge (and correct me if I'm wrong) reported after the tsunami last December. So what made the crisis in New Orleans different?

Well, there is the fact that it happened in a big city. There's the fact that the situation was combustible, people were in dire straits, and here in America the citizenry has ready, largely unimpeded access to guns. Those are easy observations to make.

But I wonder as well if there's not something encrypted into the nation's DNA that foreordained this sort of outcome. That is, here — I think more than elsewhere, and certainly more than in Europe — there is an incredibly strong do-for-yourself impulse at work in the citizenry. I don't want to say Libertarian, because the word is politically charged. But maybe small "l" libertarian. It is reflected in the country's economic get-up-and-go, its entrepreneurial spirit, the tenets of its most distinctive philosophers (Emerson leaps to mind), the long tradition of suspecting government, a general hostility to the components of the "welfare state," and certainly the people's fascination with guns. This to the point that when the water is rising, and the government (as you might have guessed) ain't coming to help — you strap a gun over your shoulder, and you do the best you can for yourself.

This is not to pass judgment and say we have bad people here in America, so when bad things happen, we're more likely to have a lapse in the social order. There is certainly plenty of upside to a society that emphasizes individual freedoms and rights and "stand on your own two feet" self-reliance. We've seen that upside over the past few centuries. But I think that this same emphasis on the individual might be the monkey wrench in the machine when all bets are off, all authority is dispersed, and conditions call for us to pull together quickly as a community. There are, to be sure, a hundred more factors in play here. Not everyone was raping and pillaging the city, and many of the crimes were imputed to preexisting criminal elements. There were no doubt less compelling and spectacular incidents of cooperation that went unreported, precisely because they didn't make interesting news. But at the macro-level — and I mean from 30,000 feet here — I wonder if the phenomenon I described, which I think is certainly (and should be) a point of pride among Americans, did not contribute just a little bit to what went on last week in New Orleans.