The scenes in New Orleans over the last week havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t exactly been a great advertisement for governmentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s ability to fulfil the responsibilities it claims to undertake in return for the right to tax. But libertarianismÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s also been having a hard time down there on the levees. When government broke, voluntarism and mutual aid didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t step forward to fill the gap. Instead, gangs emerged to fill the power vacuum Ã¢â‚¬â€œ a classic 4GW scenario, by the way. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m sure there were innumerable acts of kindness and individual solidarity, but for the most part the Ã¢â‚¬Å“thousand points of lightÃ¢â‚¬Â turned out to be muzzle flashes.
And yet, this was an example of government failure at every level, from the Republican White House to the Democratic State House. Could you really say that KatrinaÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s aftermath justifies giving more powers to the old gang?
What seems to be lacking is a sense of institutional solidarity. For the past twenty five years, the dominant theory of government has been that the state is essentially parasitic rather than representative. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s a haven for the lazy, the cynical, the indifferent, the bureaucratic, the unqualified and the meddlesome. Eventually this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the lazy, cynical, bureaucratic, meddlesome and unqualified are attracted to government. And since they exist and are tolerated, they also set an example within society at large. Add to that a society that valorises commercial transactions above all others and you have an environment in which the impulse towards voluntarism and mutual aid necessarily withers Ã¢â‚¬â€œ precisely the reverse of what free market theories of social organisation predict.
You could see this going on in a smaller way in the persecution of the Hall family by animal rights activists. As well as targeting the family itself, the animal rights nutters picked off their suppliers and investors one by one. It targeted their local pub, their golf club, even their newsagent. Instead of being at the heart of a social network that protected its members, it seems that the halls were simply at the heart of a commercial network whose members protected themselves. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the logical outcome of the dominance of a line of thought that states that there is no such thing as society, just individual men and women and their families.
What does institutional solidarity look like? The following is from Simon KuperÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ajax, the Dutch, the War, citing Hannah Arendt on Danish resistance to the Nazis, which succeeded in saving all but fifty of DenmarkÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s 7800 Jews during World War 2:
Ã¢â‚¬Â¦it seems the Danes were brave because their leaders were. The King made a public commitment to the Jews, Danish political leaders refused to take even the mildest measures against them, pastors read letters in church opposing their persecution, and so an atmosphere was created in which ambulance drivers and fishermen saved their lives.
The point is about leadership, but the leaders cited were leaders of institutions, and these institutions brought Danes together and helped give them the courage to act as individuals.
So how do we get there? You canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just say we should have more faith in our actually existing political institutions. Personally I have no faith at all in ours. Right now, more government would just mean more bad government. One thing that may help is if we insist on a strict line being drawn between business and government. LeninÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s tomb has a couple of good posts here and here on how the pseudo-privatisation of disaster relief contributed to the whole mess in New Orleans. And here we learn that the head of FEMA brought to his position all the relevant expertise acquired as an attorney for the Arabian Horse Breeders Association – a job from which he was sacked for incompetence.
More generally, the privatisation of public services has done nothing to shrink the size of government. On the contrary, it has extended its reach. ThereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s now a whole penumbra of private sector government clients eager to take a crack at getting swag off the taxpayer on easy terms. At the same time itÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s becoming hard to determine exactly what government is responsible for and therefore how its members should be punished for failing to live up to those responsibilities. ItÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s hard to establish just what the public sphere is in which people can act voluntarily. You may think that the government should have greater or lesser responsibilities. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the proper subject of political organisation and debate. But what it takes on it should take on openly, publicly and completely.
The events of last week demonstrated that we canÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t afford the idea that thereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s no such thing as good government. But as a first step towards getting it we need to define its responsibilities, to drag it into the light. That might encourage it to behave more responsibly. And if we feel that our formal institutions can be trusted, we may trust ourselves to create stronger informal, voluntary and mutualist networks.