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When the earth quakes and the winds blow, who are you going to call? It’s a political question
Thirty-four years before the French Revolution launched the modern debate about equality, another great historical event shook Europe. “Shook,” in this context, is meant to be taken literally. The earthquake began at 9:40 in the morning on November 1, 1755.
That was the year when Lisbon-town
saw the earth open and gulp her down
So wrote the poet and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., father of the U.S. Supreme Court justice, a little more than a century later. Most likely measuring near 9 on the Richter scale, the tremors and subsequent fires and tsunamis destroyed nearly all of Lisbon and caused havoc as far away as Morocco, resulting in as many as 90,000 deaths. Scientists would eventually address how such enormous devastation happened, but its meaning became a major 18th-century preoccupation, prompting an outpouring of moral, political, and theological reflection.
The Lisbon earthquake raised important questions about the nature of God. To the strictly confessional, the earthquake was clearly a sign, not unlike those found in the Bible, of God’s displeasure with our sinful conduct. But if God is all-powerful and good, responded other theologians, how could such a terrible catastrophe have been allowed to take place? Because 18th-century Europeans did not live in biblical times but in an increasingly enlightened age, the latter question attracted more interest than the former assertion. And because there was no obvious answer to it, merely posing it dealt a severe blow to conservative forms of Christianity.
To be sure, Enlightenment thinkers had no easy explanation for the Lisbon disaster, either. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who blamed human beings rather than assigning the responsibility to God, saw the devastation as proof of just how bad it was for us to live together in those artificial entities called cities (and yet we continue to do so). Voltaire concluded from the earthquake that perhaps everything was not for the best in this best of all possible worlds, after all. Kant, fascinated with the seismic disaster, was led to ask not why God would do such a thing but why a seemingly ordered physical world could suddenly appear without order.
Mostly, as the contemporary philosopher Susan Neiman points out, the Lisbon earthquake changed the way Europeans thought about good and evil: If human beings didn’t bring the earthquake about, if there were no motive for it, was the whole experience, from a philosophical or religious perspective, therefore meaningless? Nothing less than modern philosophy was born out of the tremors, Neiman argues. From this time forward, she writes, we would no longer apply the term “moral” to a phenomenon that was natural in origin. And only events when human beings engaged in deliberate cruelty toward others could be described as immoral. The Lisbon earthquake made people far more discriminating in their understanding of morality, but it in no way answered the question of why they lived with tragedy.
Our Lisbon earthquake took place in the last days of August 2005. Much as 18th-century Europeans did, 21st-century Americans watched nature’s fury launched against a major city and immediately began to wonder why it had caused such total devastation.
Hurricane Katrina did not raise many I-told-you-so invocations of God’s displeasure, although one could hear, off on the distant right, cries to the effect that the easy sex available in New Orleans angered God to the point of taking revenge. Nor were ours primarily questions of theodicy, or how a good God could be responsible for bad things; in spite of its religious revival, even the United States is too secular in modern times to sustain such a discussion. We did not adopt the Rousseauian posture of denouncing cities; we are too urban for that. Hurricane Katrina did not even put a significant dent in America’s spirit of optimism, the kind of belief in inevitable progress that Voltaire had mocked in Candide—and that moves Americans to build homes in the path of storms.
Instead, as Americans watched the devastation on television, talk turned immediately to politics. The federal government’s response was slow and out of sync with the depth of the tragedy, and Americans wanted to know why. Just as the Lisbon earthquake resulted in deep discussions of the nature of morality, Hurricane Katrina provoked serious reflection about the dynamics of governance. It became a test case for the conservative understanding of the role of government—for the idea that government should be kept as far removed from people’s lives as possible—and it was a test that conservatism failed.
George W. Bush, the most conservative president of modern times, was elected, at least in 2000, on the issue of competence. Bush was America’s first MBA leader, a man who had attended business school at Harvard and there had developed a well-thought-out management philosophy. Compared to the helter-skelter approach of the Clinton administration that preceded him, he would, Bush claimed, bring to government the experience and wisdom of private sector executives who knew something about budgets and bottom lines. His argument was that it was time for the adults to take over the business of running the country. Taxes would be cut, not necessarily because government would be trimmed back—in fact, Bush developed a version of compassionate conservatism that suggested new tasks for government—but because the state would be run more efficiently.
Yet when Hurricane Katrina struck, the federal government Bush oversaw was nowhere to be found. The main responsibility for disaster relief belonged to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), created by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 as a response to pleas made on behalf of the nation’s governors for federal coordination in this area. In subsequent years, many presidents had come to view FEMA posts as rewards for political support. It was not completely surprising therefore that as Katrina hit land, the man in charge of the agency, Michael Brown, who had padded his résumé and was in any case a failed lobbyist, knew little or nothing about the tasks for which his agency was responsible. Brown’s inexperience quickly showed. Not only did he fail to appreciate the magnitude of the storm, even as its destructive power was already known to anyone watching television, he delayed the provision of aid to the area and then, to the utter astonishment of professionals on the ground, refused to allow emergency responders from outside New Orleans to move in: “It is critical,” Brown said, “that fire and emergency departments across the country remain in their jurisdictions until such time as the affected states require their assistance.” As revealed in a series of e-mails released to the public, Brown seemed more concerned with his looks and clothes than with helping people in severe distress.
“Incompetent,” however, is not quite the way to describe the Bush administration’s response to Katrina. The conservatives who worked for the president had a well-developed philosophy of how to treat issues such as disaster relief, and they responded to Katrina by putting their philosophy immediately to work. That philosophy had been articulated by Brown’s predecessor as head of FEMA, Joseph Allbaugh. Allbaugh, who had been Bush’s campaign manager in 2000, knew little or nothing about disaster relief. But this did not prevent him from outlining strong views on the subject when he testified before a Senate subcommittee in May 2001, four years before Katrina struck. “It is not the role of the federal government to tell a community what it needs to do to protect its citizens and infrastructure,” he said on that occasion. “Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective state and local risk management. Expectations of when the federal government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of state and local response to most disasters. Federal assistance needs to supplement, not supplant, state and local efforts.”
When Katrina hit New Orleans, the administration’s first instinct was to delegate the responsibility for dealing with the disaster to state and local officials, and then to keep tight control on the federal purse strings to prevent use of federal money for purposes that might be deemed frivolous. To the degree that the administration was incompetent, then, it was not because of errors of omission; on the contrary, the inability of the Bush administration to respond to the disaster was a form of planned incompetence, a direct result of its view of government’s proper role in society.
In fact, Michael Brown’s unwillingness to act in the face of Katrina’s destructive power was matched by that of his colleagues. Despite warnings of potential disaster, Brown’s supervisor, Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, never went to his office in the two days before Katrina struck the Louisiana coastline, and, like Brown, Chertoff was extremely slow to acknowledge the seriousness of what was taking place. Although presented with numerous opportunities to declare Katrina a catastrophic event, thereby assigning it the government’s highest priority, Chertoff opted instead to call it an “incident of national significance,” making clear that the federal government would not assume full control of the relief effort. (“Chertoff’s inaction,” the historian Douglas Brinkley notes in his book The Great Deluge, “cost lives.”) Nor did President Bush feel any particular need to respond. When the distraught governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco, appealed for funds, Bush, according to Brinkley, “didn’t pursue the matter actively enough. Louisiana was a notorious black hole for pork-barrel funds. He wasn’t going to write a blank check. He also wouldn’t be inclined to make up for Blanco’s inexperience; if she was floundering, he didn’t leap to save her reputation.”
Any doubts about how determined conservatives were to fit Hurricane Katrina into the way they thought about government were resolved when right-wing activists and intellectuals began to ponder the longer-term implications of the disaster. On September 12, 2005, two weeks after the hurricane hit, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, published a paper repeating the essence of Allbaugh’s earlier testimony to the effect that disaster relief should not be a federal responsibility, urging instead the creation of “opportunity zones” based on free market principles. Jack Kemp, once a Republican candidate for president, similarly viewed Katrina as a “golden opportunity” for conservatives to get their ideas across. “Bush has what Social Security and tax reform lacked,” the conservative policy analyst Tod Lindberg said in the same vein, “a real sense of crisis that places his opponents in an awkward position. He can make demands in the name of New Orleans, including demands for substantive policy changes, that he could never obtain in the absence of a crisis.” Mike Pence, a Republican congressman from Indiana, told the Wall Street Journal at the time that “the desire to bring conservative, free market ideas to the Gulf Coast is white hot. We want to turn the Gulf Coast into a magnet for free enterprise. The last thing we want is a federal city where New Orleans was.” And when President Bush endorsed some of these ideas, such as relying on school vouchers or personal accounts for the poor, Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, noted liberal opposition to them and expressed the view that “the objection to these Bush proposals isn’t fiscal, but philosophical. They serve to undermine the principle of government dependency that underpins the contemporary welfare state, and to which liberals are utterly devoted. In a reversal of the old parable, liberals don’t want to teach people how to fish if they can just give them federally funded seafood dishes instead.”
Why do we have government in the first place? From where does its power derive? When are its actions legitimate and when are they not? Is it our friend, ready to help us in times of danger, or a seducer, holding out false allures that we must be determined to resist? Are we too dependent upon it? Would we be better off if we weaned ourselves from it in favor of reliance on the market or private charity? Must it corrupt, and corrupt absolutely? If bad things happen, can government make them better? If we are to have it, should its authority stand as a symbol of the nation and the community it defines, or are its powers so awesome that, to control abuse, its authority should be divided and kept as close to home as possible? These are serious philosophical and moral questions. It is in that sense a credit to conservatives that they raised them before and after Hurricane Katrina. But in doing so, conservatives also managed to demonstrate, as sin-obsessed religious thinkers did before them in 18th-century Lisbon, that their descriptions of how the world works are as irrelevant as their prescriptions for how it should.
States have grown over the past two centuries or so because it is impossible to realize the good life without them. States build roads and provide the infrastructure that makes society function. They insure people against the vagaries of sudden job loss. They have improved the living conditions of the elderly. They provide for the common defense. They make the streets safe. Without them, it would be difficult to have museums, schools, libraries, and concert halls. Government, in a nutshell, is a synonym for civilization.
One can, if one chooses, imagine a society without government—this is the favorite pastime of anarchism, the least important political philosophy of our time—but the moment one begins to picture a society in which human needs are met, there one will find the state. And while we generally don’t dwell on this much in normal times, the fact is that natural disasters happen. Nature can wreak a havoc that makes a role for the state inevitable and reminds us of government’s blessings—the bigger, the more fully financed, and the more comprehensive the better.
Not very many people today believe that there exists a God so vengeful as to launch earthquakes and hurricanes upon innocent people. It may someday be equally incomprehensible that in August 2005 public officials found reasons not to use powers the state had at its command. Do you really mean to tell me, some future skeptic will ask, that serious people believed it mattered whether the local, state, or federal government was first on the ground—that the powers of the federal government had to be held in abeyance—at a time when many were dying? It will seem the 21st century’s version of disputing how many angels fit on the head of a pin.
Hurricane Katrina should be viewed as a decisive event in the history of political philosophy, at least as far as the United States is concerned. Before, American conservatism possessed a certain credibility. It seemed at least plausible that governments closer to where people live might best be relied on, over the government in Washington, D.C., or that private efforts at relief might be superior to public ones. After Katrina, no one except the most ideological among us can take these as axioms of political life.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. This essay is drawn from his new book, The Future of Liberalism, © 2009 by Alan Wolfe, by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, Random House. Portions appeared first in the Washington Monthly.
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