Katrina shows it takes a community

September 11, 2005|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

For Matthew Crenson, it is no surprise that the levees and flood walls in New Orleans were not sturdy nor high enough to withstand a storm like Hurricane Katrina.

"It's something called the tragedy of the commons," says the chair of the political science department at the Johns Hopkins University.

"It is like having a common pasture," Crenson explains. "You have something that everybody shares, that everybody has an intense interest in using, but nobody has an intense interest in replenishing."

So it is allowed to deteriorate.

Such things do not happen overnight, or even in one presidential administration. While Louisiana has garnered plenty of money for water control over the decades, much of it has gone to projects seen to have immediate monetary payoffs - dredging harbors and the like.

Proposals to upgrade the levees - to spend the kind of money that built them in the first place, for the good of present and future generations - have never been fully funded in recent decades, under Republican and Democratic leadership.

This is hardly surprising. For a generation, Americans have preferred candidates like Ronald Reagan, who declared that "government is not a solution to our problem, government is the problem."

Or Bill Clinton, who said, "The era of big government is over." Or, now, George W. Bush who praises "the ownership society" as he pushes for changes in Social Security and other government social programs, reducing the shared burden in favor of individual freedom to enjoy benefits and assume risk.

"We don't own the common good," Crenson points out of that concept. So it is neglected.

Tax cuts - reducing the amount of money available for things like levees and other projects for the common good - have been the rule, not the exception, during this time. The free market has been seen as the arena that will solve problems. The Corps of Engineers applied this thinking to a levee upgrade, explaining that it never passed the cost-benefit analysis test.

"Since the Reagan era, a libertarian philosophy has been very widely accepted," says Amitai Etzioni, professor of sociology at the George Washington University. "Clinton kept saying he was investing in people while cutting the budget."

The question is if Katrina will change that, if it will cause the country to see not only the need for, but also the essential good in, individual sacrifice for the common good.

"One of the country's founders talked about the two stars in the American firmament, one being individual freedom, the other being public good," says Francis Kane, a philosophy professor at Salisbury University where he is co-director of the Institute for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.

Lessons learned

Katrina showed that plenty of people in New Orleans are quite capable of taking care of themselves. But it also showed that there were many others who for a variety of reasons - too poor to own a car, too sick to leave a hospital - needed the help of the community.

"This hurricane was instructive on every level," says William Galston, professor of civic engagement in the department of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "We learned, as if we needed to, that individual character matters. Some members of the New Orleans police force who had lost everything walked away. While that is understandable, others who had suffered equally stayed to perform their duty.

"We have also seen countless examples of ways in which extended families and neighborhoods and communities make a difference," he says, noting that nearly 80 percent of the people born in Louisiana stay there for their entire lives. "That creates a social network that is flexible enough and emotionally connected enough to reach out to victims of a catastrophe and do a lot of good.

"But not least of all, one of the functions of events such as 9/11 or Katrina is to remind us why we have government, why we need it, and how important it is that that government be adequately funded, well organized and competent."

That has rarely been the message delivered by recent successful politicians during the last generation as the pendulum has swung away from the community toward the individual.

In his 2000 book Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam of Harvard University's school of government chronicled the demise of what could be termed America's public space, pointing to the decline in memberships in the institutions - like bowling leagues - that once brought people together.

The politicians who have emphasized the individual are partly the cause of this, but their success is also the result of the forces that urged the country in this direction.

"Everything has pushed people in the direction" of acting as individuals, not as a community, Crenson says.

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