It Never Was 'Can-Do' Government

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Each Monday and Friday, I make sure that I read the latest rants from Paul Krugman in his New York Times column. While I generally agree with him when he speaks of the war in Iraq, when it comes to everything else, he is little more than an ignorant statist — granted, an ignorant statist with a doctorate in economics from the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I expected him to write about what is becoming our own Gulf War, and he did not disappoint.

Krugman wants us to return to the era of "can-do" government. This is not even the government that placed astronauts on the moon; no, it was the "can-do" government during the glorious Clinton years that handed out checks to disaster "victims" via the Federal Emergency Management Agency. As usual, Krugman demonstrates that his experience of being a political operative combined with his mathematical graduate training at MIT is no match for a simple understanding of economics and society. Those Austrian Economists he so loves to criticize are much better equipped to recognize just what has happened and why. (For starters, read Lew Rockwell’s outstanding comments on this whole matter.) It never has been "can-do" government, even though people like Krugman and E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post cannot recognize that fact.

As a real-life "Lord of the Flies" scene unfolds in New Orleans, we forget the simple reasons why this tragedy has occurred: New Orleans for many years has not been as much a functioning city as it has been an urban reservation. Yes, the place has a beautiful French Quarter and the restaurants are outstanding. There is much to love about this city that seems to have lost its future, but even a cursory look always exposed a much darker side.

New Orleans is the home of some of the most dangerous and hideous public housing projects in the country, not to mention huge neighborhoods of tumble-down shacks. Much of its population owes its existence not to tourism or the commerce of the ports or oil and gas, but rather to the federal government. As I said in the previous paragraph, much of New Orleans has been little more than an urban reservation, and now we are seeing the ultimate — and logical — results of America’s grand experiment with the welfare state.

The mobs that have terrorized this city over the past few days did not come from the working sector of the city. Instead, they came from the projects and the other places where the only commerce is in drugs, sex and liquor, and where those "bourgeois" values so hated by intellectuals and the editorial staffs of the New York Times and Washington Post are not to be found.

We forget that these are the people who depend upon the state for their entire sustenance. From the welfare case worker to the public housing director to the clinic doctors to the parole officers to the policeman, these are the "significant others" in the lives of people living in these urban reservations. All of their exposure to "social" organization is through government, which operates by force.

To the contrary, most of the people who survived the tragedy and who have been heroic in their response are people whose lives revolve around organizations built largely upon trust and exchanges of mutual benefit. The New York Times crowd may disparage the world of churches, business, nuclear families, schools (especially private schools), civic clubs and the like, but it is through those voluntary organizations that many of us are taught the basic lessons that enable us to survive and even prosper when disasters strike.

People of the reservation, on the other hand, have none of these important support mechanisms. Few of them have intact nuclear families, religious education either through church or school is almost nonexistent, and forget participation in civic organizations (other than the government-organized tenant associations of the projects). In short, what little order they have in their lives is kept together through force. While they may be "free" to come and go, their existence is little better than what one has in prison.

(On a related note, many young men — and some young women — from these reservations find their way into various stages of incarceration. A reason that many of them convert to Islam is that it is a religion that consists of numerous rules and regulations and, for many of them, presents a mechanism through which they can have some organization in their lives.)

For the most part, their experience with private property is limited to the few personal items that they own. They live in places built by a government that has no respect for the private property of others. Thus, no one should be shocked when in a catastrophe occurs, they respect the property and safety of no one else.

In our cities, the urban reservations are mostly populated with blacks. However, the behavior that is exhibited by the public housing population here is little different than what one would see in places like Liverpool, England, which is little more than a vast urban reservation populated with poor whites. This is not a racial matter, even if some wish to see it that way. Instead, we are dealing with people who given just enough to survive, but who have no real responsibilities in life except to show up at the government office on the day that checks or goods are dispensed.

The intellectuals and members of the political classes who dreamed up and created these public housing schemes looked down upon the world of work, private enterprise, and religion. They really believed that during the 1950s and 60s when they bulldozed entire neighborhoods — and the small businesses that helped sustain them — and replaced them with giant, sterile housing projects with nary a store or shop in the vicinity — that they were "solving" the "problem" of "substandard" housing. Now, when we see those policies coming to their full and horrible fruition in New Orleans, they can only demand that we expend even more resources into these places.

It seems that the central belief was that government could take care of people from cradle to grave, provide for all of their "needs," and shield them from the real world of work, risk, and even tragedy. Yet, through all this, they created a hellish world in which everyday life is punctuated with crime, violence, and hopelessness. While we can condemn the looting, vandalism, and predatory behavior that has become the scene in New Orleans today, we need to remember that many of the real perpetrators are not just the people committing these horrible acts, but also those who put the urban reservation system into being.

People like Paul Krugman and E.J. Dionne like to call the welfare system a "safety net." I would like to think of it as something akin to a pit. As long as the "underclass" that this system produces can be kept out of sight and out of mind, we like to fool ourselves into thinking that government has taken care of their needs. It is only when the horror that has been the fate of New Orleans happens that we see the system in all its evil.

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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