Katrina: Looters Are to be Expected

Tech Central Station has an interesting collection of articles on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

Especially noteworthy is a piece by Lee Harris from yesterday entitled, “When the Moral Levee Breaks.” His thesis is that we should not be surprised, let alone outraged, at the looters amidst the rubble.

Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations . . . made an immense to-do about the natural human “tendency to truck, barter, and exchange one good for another.” But Smith unfortunately did not address the question of humankind’s even more natural tendency to pilfer, rip off, and steal other people’s stuff. After all, in the Scotland of his time, people behaved themselves: the Calvinist clergy made sure of that.

Yet Smith’s failure to take humankind’s primordial instinct for theft was not unique; on the contrary, all political theorists of the modern era, from Rand to Rawls to Nozick have implicitly assumed that we are living in a world in which acts of theft are simply unthinkable — an unspeakable No No that protects our civilization in the same way that the levees around New Orleans were once considered to have protected its population from inundation.

Alas, none of these modern political theorists ever thought to ask themselves the question, “How did it come about that the societies of the West were provided with a moral levee against the flood of self-interested and non-altruistic individualists?”


What cries out for an explanation is not the looting, but the outrage of those who can’t understand how human beings can sink so low. The looters are the children of nature — but whose children are those who have been taught to despise them?

While not as fleshed out as I’d like, this is a sobering concept. Old school conservatives believe man is inherently evil and only behaves well under intense duress. I tend not to believe that but it’s hard not to when we see the complete failure of the social order that happened almost literally overnight in New Orleans.

So far, at least, I haven’t heard similar stories out of Biloxi, Mississippi and other equally hard hit areas. Maybe there’s a dark underbelly to laissez les bons temps rouler. Or maybe New Orleans is just where the cameras are.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. leelu says:


    I suspect the latter: “Or maybe New Orleans is just where the cameras are.” I watch the Weather Channel last night, and one of their guys was in Long Beach LA. No looting. The Salvation Army had arrived, and by nightfall had server over 1,000 meals.

    But that doesn’t ‘sell newspapers’ like fire, flood, looting famine and death, so I’m betting you won’t see too much of the Long Beach story.

    The business of the MSM is to sell eyeballs the the advertisers.


  2. bryan says:

    Part of the reason you probably aren’t seeing all the looting in Miss. and Ala. is because there isn’t as much, although there were stories earlier in the week about people going into casinos to try to loot any money that might have been left.

    Those areas are now relatively dry and able to accept relief efforts and law enforcement patrols. That will naturally tend to dampen the looting. New Orleans is a different matter entirely.

    And lest we forget that there’s an animal lurking beneath our civilized veneer, recall that it only takes something as simple as a national championship or an incident of police violence to spark rioting and looting in other areas of the country.

  3. cirby says:

    there were stories earlier in the week about people going into casinos to try to loot any money that might have been left.

    Knowing folks like my Mom, they were probably trying to get in a few spins on the slots before looking for the buffet.

  4. tyler says:

    The looting doesn’t surprise me at all. I didn’t expect it to be such a huge problem though.

    Perhaps it’s not as the media makes it out to be. Either way, looting would take place. I can understand looting for basic supplies. I would partake in that myself if the situation demanded it.

    But, since it is so rampant in New Orleans, it leads me to believe some people stayed behind just to loot.

    I think drugs have a lot to do with it. I’d be willing to bet various gangs stayed back so they could rob stash houses that belong to other gangs.

    The drug game would definately get very serious during a catastrophe like this. Could be reason for so many murders. And just think how much money these gangs would be able to make if they were able to make off with someone else’s goods.

    I believe drugs are a driving force behind the violence in New Orleans. Could also explain why we’re not seeing the total chaos in other katrina-affected areas.

  5. ben says:

    These people are desperate, some of them. And others are opportunists.

    I’m not surprised at all to see it, but I really don’t understand the whole “shooting at rescuers” thing – that level of agression doesn’t make a lot of sense. I’m not surprised that some folks see a jewelry store or liquor store in a disaster area and help themselves (I’m not saying it’s right, just not surprising. Leave your car unlocked at night in the same area and your stereo will be missing by morning, even without a hurricane)

    But shooting at guys trying to evacuate a hospital? That is wrong on so many levels.

    BTW, found you from the Oil Drum.