TCS Daily

Failed State

By Gregory Scoblete - September 7, 2005 12:00 AM

The scenes of wanton chaos, lawlessness, desperation and death in New Orleans can't be blamed on Mother Nature alone. We have known from centuries of bitter experience just what she is capable of. And in Katrina's case, she told us precisely what she was planning to do and when she was planning to do it. No, the mayhem strewn in Katrina's wake resulted from a collapse of government at all levels. But unlike the storm, which gave a mere 24 hours worth of warning, the swirling maelstrom of government incompetence and inattention that led to ruin was hiding in plain site.

It hid behind the embarrassing spectacle of the U.S. Senate huffing indignantly about steroid use in baseball. It hid behind the passage of a highway bill which allocated your hard-earned tax dollars to such national priorities as the removal of graffiti in New Yorcok ($6 million) and the "beautification" of the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California ($2.3 million). It hid in a 70 percent jump in agriculture subsidies that helped "farmer" and former NBA all-star Scottie Pippen to a tune of $26K in 2002. It hid behind Big Bird and other small but telling reminders of just how seriously Washington takes its responsibility to spend the product of your labor wisely.

Why do we have a government? It may seem like a silly question, but the havoc of Katrina's aftermath peeled back the curtain on our precarious alternative.

Bellum Omnium Contra Omnes

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher famous for his landmark treatise Leviathan, argued that absent the strong power of state authority (the Leviathan) man would exist in a precarious "state of nature" vulnerable to the depredations of his fellow man. Rather than fall mercy to his environment, which Hobbes famously described as "nasty, brutish and short," man surrenders some his rights to the Leviathan in exchange for security. Hobbes' preferred Leviathan was a monarchy but the principle works just as well for democracy: we surrender rights and resources to our modern Leviathan with the understanding that it will provide us protection that we as individual citizens cannot reasonably provide for ourselves.

This basic compact, rights for security, is one of the bedrock principles animating Western civilization. A government that cannot, at a minimum, keep people reasonably safe from external harm is ultimately illegitimate. This is the state's raison d'etre. Every other function of government, including education and road building, is subordinate to this fundamental guarantee.

Yet, as Katrina demonstrates, this minimum standard has not, under any reasonable formula, been met. Even allowing for the severity of the disaster in question and the inevitable foul-ups that would follow even the most exquisitely tailored emergency plans, the response from the local, state and federal government was embarrassing and outrageous. Disasters, after all, are the sole province of the Leviathan in both its local and national varieties.

Katrina's aftermath was, at the end of the day, a testament to just how unmoored the government has become from its fundamental purpose. This unmooring, this failure to properly establish a limited set of priorities and execute them with a high degree of competence springs from two complementary impulses. As we have channeled the "war of all against all" into constructive political and social outlets, the government has expanded the definition of what "protection" entails. No longer is the Leviathan responsible for our physical security, but our medical security, our retirement security, even our mental health. It's concerned that we smoke and that we're too fat.

But we are not in Hobbes' desired monarchy, where decisions are subject to the arbitrary whims of an unelected crown. We have endorsed this expansive concept of security at the ballot box. This is not the place to debate the merits of specific entitlements only to suggest that a government that continuously assigns itself ever expansive mandates will, by necessity, become more attenuated. Federal officials that should spend time on core issues that only government can tackle, spend time denouncing Mark McGwire and McDonald's.

Republicans of an increasingly rare variety used to endorse the principle of a limited, prioritized government that assigned itself those tasks that only the Leviathan could accomplish, letting other agencies -- local, civil and private -- grapple with the rest. Yet with entitlement spending ballooning and egregious pork barrel spending at unprecedented highs, it's clear setting priorities and making difficult "either/or" decisions is out of fashion.

Hurricane season comes and goes, but mass-casualty terrorism will be a long-term fixture in the national forecast. If the government chooses to occupy its time, effort and resources with trivialities, and if we continue to applaud it from the electoral sidelines, then future disasters will occasion more grim headlines.

The U.S. can survive, even thrive, without Big Bird and with steroid-juiced baseball players. It cannot long survive with a government that does not appreciate, and execute, its fundamental obligations.

To see more of the extensive coverage of Hurricane Katrina from TCS, click here.

The State of Nature visited New Orleans last week and our Leviathan was found wanting.



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