Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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What We Should Learn from Katrina

Until now, I have intentionally stayed away from the discussion of "what went wrong" with the response to Katrina. It seems to me that there are too many unanswered questions and I am not ready to jump on the bandwagon with the rest of the MSM who are sure that something is wrong and that it is the Bush Administration’s fault. I have also been hesitant to point fingers at local officials until all the details are known. It has always seemed to me to be unproductive in the extreme to blame people when there is still so much work to be done. While things remain in flux, it is unclear not only who did wrong but if wrong was done. Finally, we don’t even know how bad the disaster was--early searches today seem to indicate that the death toll may be far less than people have predicted.

But certain things--in a broad and general sense--are clear. The first lesson is that it is not smart to depend upon Big Government to protect you or loved ones unable to protect themselves from disasters. Living in Southern California, I have been made keenly aware of this fact. If a serious earthquake hits us I know my family will have enough water and food to get by for several weeks. We have even discussed escape routes that don’t involve conventional roads (that would, of course, be overwhelmed with people and probable failures). The second, and politically more important lesson is this: Americans, in general, need to start thinking about things in a more local sense. Who is responsible for disaster response in your city? When something hits, it will be these people who can and should respond first. What is the evacuation plan? Is it a good one? Can it be reasonably implemented? What can citizens do to make themselves more aware of these things and prepared? These kinds of questions would be far more usefully answered by a responsible media and citizenry. I don’t think we want, as Joe Knippenberg suggests, to militarize disaster relief. But, given their expertise, it would probably be a good idea to get ex-military folks to organize these efforts on the local level.

Discussions - 5 Comments

This comment goes to both Julie Ponzi’s and Joseph Knippenberg’s posts on disaster relief and the role of the military.

First of all, I do not think that one can simply distinguish between, on the one hand, "natural" disasters and, on the other, security issues. First of all, a "natural" disaster, if not decisively and successfully addressed, can lead to windows of opportunity for terrorists and other elements that are threats to security. This could include specific information about vulnerabilities of infrastructure, power plants, etc, as well as possibilities of doing immediate harm (I’m not going to spell out some of the specific ways a situation like New Orleans could be exploited, for obvious reasons). Secondly, the "sauve qui peut" attitude of Julie Ponzi, where everyone tries to take care of themselves, can lead to tragic effects, like stampedes, blocked roads etc., but more to my present point, to vigilantism where the attitude extends to protection against looters, etc. This in turn can lead to a general security crisis in the affected area.
The federalism issues are real at one level (the legal framework in the US) but at another imaginary: any local or state politican who stands on the law of federalism while people are dying or at risk of death in a disaster is likely to be committing political suicide (and there have already likely been a number of political suicides out of New Orleans). As Joseph Knippenberg rightly notes, the US military is a very effective organization in many respects. I regularly consult to governments and agencies that are dealing with restructuring of public services in various countries; pragmatism and realism are very important, and there are many countries where getting the military involved in disaster relief or infrastructure reconstruction etc. is likely to itself be a disaster, politically and otherwise, but happily America is not one of them.
A final point: Iraq demonstrates that, in the current and emerging global security environment, the core role of the military may require that it be very well trained and equipped for civil reconstruction. Establishing law and order on the streets, securing and rebuilding infrastructure, etc. are crucial to making intervention in failed or rogue states succeed and preventing the place from becoming once again the kind of place that makes the world less secure. In sum, the disaster relief challenge nicely dovetails with other roles that are crucial to our military’s mission in the post-cold war world.

Actually, what I was really calling for was more direct civic action on the local level and responsibility among the citizens.


To facilitate direct civic action in America, there would need to be a fundamental redistribution of wealth and opportunities. The divides of class, income, and race are too extreme in many parts of America, even within individual cities or localities, to allow the sense of common destiny and communal trust that is an essential foundation for such civic republicanism. Indeed, as Bob Reich and others have noted for a long time, the "new" economy actually exacerbates some of these divides. You can’t be a civic republican and a libertarian at the same time. Plato, Montesquieu and James Madison all knew that very well.

Rob, I agree with you about the need for centralized disaster control/relief...the "rugged individualist" approach is great for selective survival, but when everyone does it you end up with tragedies (particularly during crises). I do think Julie has a point, however, in reviving this ethic among Americans. We would be better off in general by NOT relying so heavily on centralized government.

I find your latest comment on social inequalities and civic republicanism a bit absurd. Are you saying that civic republicanism was impossible prior to WWII? Income inequality was quite high in the earlier part of this century, indeed higher than it is now. Moreover, inequality in the United States is relatively mild compared to many 3rd World countries...are they too prevented from enjoying civic republicanism? Also, are you saying the racial divide is actually worse today than it was in the bad old KKK days? I note that the country has enjoyed a measure of "civic republicanism" during periods when objective stratification was much worse. I don’t think your argument holds up.

What may prevent a more engaged civil society is 1) the indoctrination of certain groups by the Left (i.e., coaching grievances), and 2) foolish multicultural sensibilities and relatively unrestricted immigration. What do you have to say about that?

Edward Crenshaw’s questions are fair ones, given that I didn’t explain that fully my point in the post.

First, and easiest, on third world countries, yes, you are absolutely right to draw the implication that extreme income equality creates very extreme problems for building of robust civic institutions in those countries. There’s quite a bit of empirical evidence that societies where income inequality is relatively moderate have better chances of building such institutions.

I guess my underlying feeling is that America is the kind of country where you can’t depend on civic republicanism--indeed less and less--to achieve social goals, and thus a strong central redistributive state is needed to protect the vulnerable and disadvantaged. Yet I’m not a cultural pessimist, either. I don’t agree with Robert Putnam that social capital is easy to run down but almost impossible to build up. If we are smart we will indeed look for new sources and sites of solidarity accross the divides of American society. What has happened with some meighborhoods, e.g. Harlem, is encouraging, despite the general trend. I

Where I fully agree with you is where you suggest that the "left", at least the branch of it that has preached "cultural" difference has contributed to the polarization of of American society, if unwittingly, with its conception of group entitlements, and actually undermined the cause of social equality, not advanced it. These cultural seperatists really infuriate me as they undermine the common goals that we on the left broadly share.

On the US in the early part of the 20th century, I have to confess that I don’t know very well that period in American history. What I do know is that there is a considerable literature now that suggests something like the "end" of the middle class. Universities and the military no longer play the role in social mobility and solidarity between classes that they did earlier. College educated people live in a different world than the working class--the divide is greater than in the past. Thanks to the depression, for decades many if not most American families had some direct experience, at least in one member or branch of the family, of poverty or need. Finally, and here is where I disagree with you on immigration, the large waves of immigration themselves upset and introduced flexibility into the class structure of America. As for race, of course I am not in favor of the bad old days of the KKK, but I also observe that, comparing my native city of Toronto or London, England a city I know well and have lived in, there is still an extraordinary degree of seperateness to the way blacks and whites live in America.

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