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.