Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Lee Harris on Katrina and New Orleans

In two Tech Central Station columns, Lee Harris displays a certain ham-handedness in his use of political philosophy, setting up Thomas Hobbes as a straw man when he should have been referring to Hegel, Kojeve, and Fukuyama, or at least reading Hobbes with much greater care than he did. What’s more, his version of Aristotle owes a lot more to a Kojevian Hegel than he knows or cares to admit.

Nevertheless, the question he ends up asking is, within limits, a good one:

9/11 made most Americans believe that a strong central government was necessary to protect and defend them from catastrophic terror attacks, but Katrina has left them wondering what is the point of so much discretionary power if the men who possess it lack the wisdom to use it.

In short, in the post-9/11 world, the federal government was looked upon as a bulwark that stands strong; in the post-Katrina world, it is seen as a levee that failed.

Too many Americans may expect too much of government, especially of the federal government. Rightly or wrongly (I’d argue, more wrongly than rightly), we
hold the federal government responsible whenever something big goes wrong, all too willingly giving lower levels of government a pass.

I wish I could say that President Bush hadn’t contributed to this expectation, but in any number of his speeches he has overpromised what government could deliver. Here’s my modest effort at chastisement:

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Bush was even bolder, speaking of "our responsibility to history," namely, "to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil" (emphasis added). Even if, as sinners go, we are relatively good, to assert that we can actually rid the world of evil is superhuman—the very antithesis of humility. Perhaps we could forgive President Bush and his speechwriters for misspeaking in the heat of the moment, but he made a similar point in his 2002 West Point commencement address, where he promised to "lift this dark threat from our country and from the world." Why not simply identify and resist evil wherever it appears, recognizing that it is part and parcel of our fallen human condition? After all, in his prayer service remarks at the National Cathedral on September 14, 2001, he declared that in "every generation, the world has produced enemies of human freedom," which suggests that the struggle against evil is unending.

Here’s another smart(er) commentary on the same subject.

It is perhaps impolitic or un-American for anyone to admit that there are limits to what government can do. It sounds to us like an evasion of responsibility, an un-Trumanesque passing of the buck. Of course, both genuinely religious folks and traditional conservatives affirm human finitude. Are they un-American or impolitic?

Here I feel the need for a dose of Steve Hayward’s wisdom and learning. (Steve, are you listening?) Modern American conservatism came of age with the election of Ronald Reagan as a reaction against the dour and humorless Jimmy Carter’s claims about our limits. Reagan is often said to offer the sunny and optimistic side of conservatism, just as GWB displays the confident "can-do" American spirit. There is, it seems to me, a fine line here, one that is difficult to tread. Doesn’t an optimistic, confident conservatism, one that can be and has been electorally successful in America, run the risk of shading into the very "big government" it seeks to avoid, not just operationally (as one would certainly have to concede about the Bush Administration), but in its very bones? How do we stay humble and cognizant of our limits...and win elections? Or must we choose?

Discussions - 6 Comments

I see your point, and your conservative side of the desire of a smaller Fed rings through, but isn’t GWB a little more responsible than you let on? I think you eluded to the fact that Bush won this last election on American’s desire for security from darn near everything that would threaten them. He blazed through the previously hurricane ridden Florida promising better aid than before, if only they would allow him to continue the work he had begun. While I’m all about continuity, I find GWB to have made his own bed this time.
His campaign played off of everyone’s desire to be safe from a fear that 24/7 media, FOX New’s inaccurate reporting (I admit, that was a bit of a potshot), and a warning system that cries wolf all to often have created.

Bottom line: A lot of folks down south elected him to keep them safe. Numerous exit polls last fall found people voting for Bush because they felt he would do a better job keeping them safe. Bush, who sadly takes the poster boy seat for the Fed, fell short of the expectations that he himself set on the campaign trail.

Patrick, I doubt people view Bush as omnipotent. He can’t keep us safe from natural disasters, and as the evidence demonstrates, the problems in New Orleans aren’t his to bear. You folks need to give this way will you make this stick to Bush.

I think the criticism that you are levelling at Bush fails to recognize the different roles that the Federal Government plays regarding foreign affairs and domestic natural disasters. Bush’s response to 9/11 was appropriate to his responsibilities, as President, to defend the nation from attack, and his effort to introduce democracy into the Middle East had a rational national security justification. Katrina, on the other hand, was a natural disaster that, at least in our Federal system, placed the major responsibility on state and local authorities, with the Federal agencies taking (at least initially) the subordinate role. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. What we see now is Bush reacting to the failure of the local/state authorities to provide the leadership required...and it is hard to fault him for that!

I argued in the post that we for the most part wrongly hold the federal government responsible in instances like this. And I do accept the distinction between domestic and foreign responsibilities. But in the public mind, anything big that happens is the federal government’s problem. I don’t think GWB has always been sufficiently careful in delineating the limits of government, whether it be federal or state vis-a-vis one another or of human power altogether.

The serious question, I think, is this: given limits, how should resources be allocated? Some views are superior to others here. This was something that was discussed in great detail during 2004, and it seemed to me at the time that the sensible position was that we should allocate more resources to disaster management and less to things like nation-building and attempts to "reform" the Middle East. Disaster management dollars do double duty, providing preparedness for natural disasters and providing deterrence of terrorist attacks.

As an aside, discussion of government limits has an air of unreality about it if we omit the administration’s stunningly ambitious aims in Iraq. Seems to me that having a plan for a forseeable disaster, and allocating resources to mitigating the effects of that disaster, should be a high priority, precisely because resources are limited and we need to be relatively utilitarian about how we allocate them.


Resource allocation results from a political process, despite our sporadic efforts to govern by expert or by commission, neither of which is ultimately superior, I’m inclined to argue. We treat defense procurement dollars and base positioning decisions as local jobs and economic development programs. We give absolutely everyone a piece of the homeland security pie. Public works, whether undertaken by the Corps of Engineers or some other agency, are often just so much pork. Is this an inefficient way of allocating scarce resources? You’d better believe it! Is there an abstractly better way? Sure! Are we going to adopt it, given everyone’s entrenched political interests and the short attention spans of both the voters and the media? Are you kidding?

Yes, some decisions about domestic resource allocation have been at best short-sighted. But I can’t believe that money not spent in the Middle East would actually have found its way into programs making a meaningful difference in the fate of New Orleans. And yes, the Bush Administration has very bold aims in Iraq and Afghanistan. But those are, to my mind, risks worth taking, given a plausible alternative is cleaning up after terrorist attacks of the scope and magnitude of the Katrina disaster (see Henninger’s column, cited in a later post) all over the country.

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