TCS Daily

When the Moral Levee Breaks

By Lee Harris - September 1, 2005 12:00 AM

On the Tuesday after the levees broke in New Orleans, I found myself sitting in a submarine sandwich shop in a suburb of Atlanta, where, for the first time, I saw the video of the looting that was taking place, in broad daylight, throughout The Big Easy, unencumbered by anything so prosaic as law and order.

To me, the looting came as no surprise: it was a completely natural phenomenon. It was exactly what my own theory of the social order would have predicted. What else should you expect when a civilized order collapses?

Yet my blasé and perhaps overly worldly response was not at all shared by the young man who had just made my submarine sandwich.

He was perhaps twenty or twenty-one at the most, but you could tell by looking at him that the footage of the looters had genuinely outraged and perplexed him. When he saw people carting out an endless stream of stereos and TV's and assorted groceries from the businesses that they had broken into, he kept saying, with obvious disdain: "Will you look at that? It's unbelievable!" Then he would glance around at his co-worker and at me, as if asking us to vocalize our support for his moral indignation. His co-worker co-operated, but I did not. I just kept eating my submarine sandwich, and kept my thoughts to myself.

I kept quiet because, for the last couple of days, I had been reading a book about the Sandwich Islands, now known as Hawaii, and what Captain Cook, the great English explorer, had observed about its people, and, indeed, about all the various peoples that he had discovered tucked away on their paradise islands in the middle of the nowhere called the South Pacific.

They were all thieves.

Cook was enough of a multiculturalist not to take great moral umbrage at the thieving ways of the savages of paradise. His attitude, after landing on several thieving islands, became: "Oh well, what can you expect?"

Of course, he could not tolerate the theft of certain objects, like the ship's sextant, but he was quite willing to turn a blind eye on lesser offenses committed by the native islanders. After all, what was to keep the natives from taking other people's things? Hadn't other people already been prompt enough to take theirs?

Adam Smith, who wrote The Wealth of Nations before Cook's voyages, 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?"

The young man at the sandwich shop had been so well brought up that he was no longer able to sympathize with the motives of human beings who were behaving in precisely the same way that all human beings always behave when they are struggling for survival in the state of nature. He was indignant at the thief who inhabits the id inside of every one of us. He was livid at evidence of other people's humanity.

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?

Lee Harris is author of Civilization and Its Enemies.

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