Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Liberalism, conservatism, and Katrina

Willaim Voegeli offers his commentary on this exchange between Noam Scheiber and Ross Douthat.

At issue is the extent to which liberal or conservative approaches to government and to life in general are better capable of responding to and making sense of challenges like that posed by Katrina. Douthat expresses a good sense of the limits of government and a healthy respect for the power of nature. Voegeli does a good job teasing out what is implicit in Scheiber’s comments:

Scheiber would agree with Douthat’s proposition that “nature isn’t our friend,” but goes on to take the thoroughly modern position that humans have a vast capacity and, hence, duty to render nature friendlier to prevent “unnecessary pain and suffering.” Storms can be forecast, floodwaters diverted, illnesses cured – problems, in short, can be solved. Archibald MacLeish voiced this optimism in 1943: “We have the tools and the skill and the intelligence to take our cities apart and put them together, to lead our roads and rivers where we please to lead them, to build our houses where we want our houses, to brighten the air, clean the wind, to live as men in this Republic, free men, should be living.” In The Right Nation we learn that after LBJ’s election in 1964, “One group of scientists, their expenses paid by the National Science Foundation, even began a research project aimed at controlling the weather.”

It’s not clear whether Scheiber believes there is such a thing as necessary pain and suffering, as opposed to suffering to be ameliorated as we make the government ever more robust and efficient. He hedges on whether government’s obligations and capabilities are finite or infinite. If it “can mitigate, if not completely eliminate, much of the chaos and nastiness in the world,” how much chaos and nastiness would remain? Furthermore, would past governmental successes lead to demands to tackle still more problems, until the mitigation of much chaos and nastiness becomes asymptotically indistinguishable from the elimination of all of it?

Everyone ultimately agrees that some, and perhaps every, level of government could have done better. Mistakes, as they say, were made, some of them quite striking and perhaps culpable. But there’s no such thing as human perfection, and, as Voegeli points out, a substantial number of people have sense enough to accept that. I’m not about to argue that we should simply "move on," but I do think that we should ask those whose virtually first move is to blame government what warrant they have for their position. This is potentially a teachable moment for those who have the stomach to teach that human failure and human suffering are not ineradicable, and that nature cannot decisively be conquered.

Update: Bill McClay, smart as always, comes at these matters from a less political, more philosophical angle. Here’s the nub of his argument:

[M]any people will not care about the specifics; the important thing will be that SOMEONE IS TO BLAME. This points to an increasingly familiar pattern of expectation, which only grows as our scientific knowledge and technological wizardry grow. It parallels our society’s growing rage at a medical system, including the pharmaceutical industry, that has been remarkably skillful, and more skillful in each passing year, in successfully addressing a range of diseases and conditions that were formerly thought to be untreatable. But modern medicine cannot banish the existence of risk. Which is why the system is all too often a casualty of the very expectations it raises. There is a sense in which, the more things become mastered, the more intolerable are those remaining areas in which our mastery is not yet complete. This parallels very neatly the observation made by Tocqueville that times of revolutionary upheaval occur when social expectations are rising, and that the growth of social equality in America would exacerbate, rather than relieve, Americans’ sense of class injury and class resentment. This is less of a paradox than it seems at first glance.

Read the whole thing.

Discussions - 2 Comments


It is true that demands rise with capacity, and at some point demands outstrip capacity, and this fact provides opportunity to reflect on the human condition more broadly.

But granting the fact that government is limited, it is reasonable to ask how the government responds to risk, how it indemnifies some against risk and not others, and more broadly how it orders priorities. For example: the fact that Congress and Bush bent over backwards to involve themselves in the Schiavo affair - clearly as local a matter as they get - but couldn’t be bothered to turn up the heat on state and local officials until it was too late (assuming, only for the purposes of argument, the administration’s broad narrative) - that points to an entirely insane allocation of federal government time and energy.

It is no answer to this critique to shrug and say, broadly, that government is limited. The problem is not limits, but priorities.

PS: is disaster management more or less an attempt to conquer nature than indefinite life support for a PVS patient? Got me.

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