Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Post-Katrina: The Right Shoots For The Stars

by Tom Bozzo

Over at Conglomerate, I saw this bit from Gordon Smith:
We seem to have reached a national consensus on one conclusion: "government" failed the people of New Orleans, before and after Katrina struck. (Though we still seem a bit hazy about how to partition the blame among the federal, state, and local governments.)

As for the cause of the failure, we are left with the usual divisions, which are incompletely informed by the facts of the case -- this is inevitable, since the facts are unfolding so quickly... -- but based instead primarily on well-defined starting points. Many libertarians (here [Randy Barnett at Volokh]) and conservatives (here [Prof. Bainbridge]) think this is a matter of incentives, and suggest that private enterprise would do better than government. By contrast, liberals (here [here as in MU: the "Word" post of 9/3/05]) assume venality or bigotry, at least with regard to Republicans. [Asinine Althouse post falsely suggesting that "rhetorical twistiness" is necesary to "pull off the blame Bush manuever."]
As it happens, I don't think venality is a bad assumption at all for Bushite Republicanism, or as I noted in the Conglomerate comments,
I think [Grover] Norquist's prescription of estate tax repeal as the ideal form of hurricane relief would be a parody of Republican venality if he weren't presumably serious.
Nor would the Republican party be innocent of the bigotry charge, had I or the writers I linked actually made it, as among other things it should not be a surprise to anyone reading this that more-or-less sub rosa playing of southern white resentment over the advancement of blacks' civil rights in the sixties has, shamefully, been an element of the party's takeover of southern politics from the Democrats. That's not to say that the fact that the Katrina refugees are mostly poor and black hasn't thrown into sharp relief the persistent gross racial and economic injustices in American society.

Now, to whatever extent my post and the posts of my linkees represent the "usual divisions," to suggest that the distinction is between pro-free-enterprise righties and the left "assuming" evil motivations on the part of Republicans is to badly miss the point of the earlier post.

At the risk of speaking for my linked sources, the outrage in this case is not primarily over Republican venality and bigotry, but rather over Republican callousness and incompetence. The proper distinction, particularly taking into account Kash Mansori's manifesto at Angry Bear, would be between the conservative/libertarian emphasis on private provision of public services and the liberal emphasis on competent government provision.

Moreover, Kash's post explains, in non-technical terms, why the economics are on our side, and the "invisible hand" can't be counted upon to adequately provide "public goods" relative to the competent government counterfactual. This points right to Gordon's (conceptually correct) conclusion that "we wouldn't be any happier about paying a private firm" for disaster relief and preparedness services. And as such, Prof. Bainbridge's quotation of Adam Smith in explaining the virtues of free markets in this case has about the intellectual force of a quotation of Donald Luskin.

Part of what makes me a hardcore counterfactualist is that eliding the distinction between competent government and the actual government whose executive branch is lead by George W. Bush appears to be forming as a key element of the Republican counterstrike on the Katrina response's political fallout. (*) This approach should fail because the next best alternative to Bushism isn't an even less competent federal government.

But to underscore a critical point raised by Robert Farley last week at Lawyers, Guns and Money, asserting the fundamental incompetence of activist government has been a central element of the Republican meta-narrative; as such, the right's impulse would be to paint the failure not as one of the Bush administration, but rather as "failure of the abstract concept of activist government." In this regard, Farley could have practically written Bainbridge's post, or this David Brooks column (see gloss from Elton Beard, via DeLong).

So while progressives may rightly see this as an opportunity for sensible reform of Bushite bad government, the right may be seeing an opportunity to shoot for the moon and beyond: if you think we've seen bad government up to this point, just imagine what we'll get if Rove machine gets back to succesfully rogering (**) the usual suspects in the "MSM" and public opinion turns accordingly.

(*) The challenge to post-counterfactualists is to come up with a "post-counterfactualism" that doesn't tolerate this.

(**) I saw The Aristocrats last night, so feel glad I'm not elaborating.
I have no blame to distribute. Mr. Bush told us in August that he needed his long vacation to get in condition to make sharp, quick decisions [words to that effect]. He was therefore quite rested by time all this happened. Think what would've happened if he had been tired — and be grateful.
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