Randville, Rawlsburg, and New Orleans
September 6, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
there is no such entity as "the public" since the
public is merely a number of individuals any claimed or implied
conflict of the "public interest" with private interests
means that the interests of some men must be sacrificed to the interests
of and wishes of others.
- Ayn Rand
A society is a cooperative venture for mutual advantage... Social
cooperation makes possible a better life for all than any would
have if each were to live solely by his own efforts.
- John Rawls
In his second debate with Al Gore, candidate George Bush said "I
think you can spend your money more wisely than the federal government
You think? Ask the survivors of the New Orleans Super Dome and
Who is better equipped to prepare for natural disasters and, when
they strike, to deal with them? Individual citizens acting on their
own, or government agencies acting in behalf of the community at
large – acting professionally, with expert information, and with
clear command and coordination?
Again, for your answer, consider New Orleans.
It comes down to this simple question: is there such a thing as
a "public interest" distinct and apart from a simple summation
of private interests? The libertarians and the regressive right
say that there is not. Progressives say that there is a public interest,
and both history and common sense bear this out. In a free society,
the appropriate protector and administrator of this public interest
is a government of, by, and for the people. Our founding documents
affirm this explicitly.
The regressive right (falsely called "conservatives")
tells us otherwise. Thus we are now experiencing the bitter consequences
of Ronald Reagan's 1981 inauguration pronouncement: "government
is not the solution, government is the problem." The Reagan
administration and the two subsequent Bush administrations have
crippled and dismantled government agencies almost the point at
which, as Grover Norquist puts it, government can be "drowned
in a bathtub." And so today it is the unprepared and unprotected
city of New Orleans that is drowning in the filthy flood waters
left by Hurricane Katrina.
Two years ago, with the Katrina catastrophe just one of many grim
possibilities, I published a parable
about two communities, about to be hit by a flood. Given the dreadful
events of last week, it bears repeating.
Imagine that two communities are situated on opposite sides of
a great river. On the right bank (appropriately) is "Randville,"
populated by libertarians – rugged individualists who are contemptuous
of "collective" activity and who assume full personal
responsibility for their personal safety, welfare and property.
On the left bank is "Rawlsburg," comprised of individuals
who, while covetous of their personal rights, fully acknowledge
the existence of public interests. They are therefore aware of the
desirability of acting collectively, in the words of the Preamble
to the U.S. Constitution, "to insure domestic tranquility,
provide for the common defense, [and] promote the general Welfare."
News arrives that a great flood is approaching from upstream.
The citizens of Randville immediately get to work piling sandbags
around their individual homes. Across the river brigades of Rawlsburg
citizens are working together to build a levee around the town.
One of the towns survives the flood, while the other is devastated.
Need I identify which is which?
Consider another case: this one is not fanciful – it is quite
In April, 2003, California Governor Gray Davis requested $430
million in federal funds to reduce the fire hazard in the southern
California forests. The request was ignored until, on October 24,
George Bush rejected
it. A few hours later, "the Old Fire" broke out in
the San Bernardino mountains, followed by several more fires, eventually
consuming three quarter of a million acres and 3577 homes, and causing
This particular disaster struck close to home – precisely 150
feet close to my home, where the fire was stopped at my property
line. "The Old Fire" almost surrounded the cluster of
houses in our neighborhood, and only the combined, coordinated and
professional effort of the U.S. Forest Service and the state and
local firefighters saved our homes. Several days earlier we were
ordered off the mountain while these "big government bureaucracies"
did their work – magnificently. (See my "If
it burns, it earns").
Presumably, the method preferred by the Bush administration would
have been to defund the government fire-control agencies and then
to leave it to each of us individual property owners to take a valiant
stand by our individual homes, garden hoses in hand. Who can doubt
that had we tried that, all our houses would have been reduced to
ashes and many of us would have ended up as "crispy critters."
All of us San Bernardino mountaineers – Democrats, Republicans,
Independents – were convinced, contrary to George Bush, that "the
government" spent our money better than we could.
One final example: had the December, 2004 tsunami occurred in
the Pacific Ocean instead of the Indian Ocean, the death toll would
have been much lower. This is because there is an international
tsunami warning system in place in the Pacific, and following the
earthquake that triggered it, populations around the Pacific rim
would have had advance warning from several minutes to several hours.
(In deep water, tsunami waves travel up to 500 mph, and much slower
near shore). Because there is no such system in the Indian Ocean,
the December 26 tsunami struck without warning.
An international tsunami warning system, and the scientific research
and development behind it, is clearly beyond the resources or the
incentives of private individuals, or even of corporations. Only
governments are capable of such an undertaking. And governments
are singularly authorized for such an undertaking, for public safety
is not an exclusively private matter, it is, as they say "in
the public interest."
The role of government in protecting the lives and property of
its citizens, one of the sole legitimate functions of government
recognized by the libertarians, is universally acknowledged in civilized
societies, as it was in the United States until, apparently, January
2001. No longer. The policy of the Bush government is to cut the
FEMA funds and put a political hack in charge, send the National
Guard to Iraq, and slash the funding for the New Orleans levees.
And if you don't like it, private citizen, here's a shovel and a
sand bag, now get to work!
Just remember, to the Busheviks and the GOP, "government
is not the solution, government is the problem." And so, after
our government has been drowned in Grover Norquist's bathtub, we
will all be on our own in George Bush's "ownership society."
Well that's just fine if you happen to be one of the fortunate
1% who has "invested" in the GOP and Bush campaign juggernaut,
and are thus the beneficiary of Bush's tax cuts and deregulation.
If not, then you are out in the cold – or if you are poor and in
New Orleans, stuck in the toxic soup.
So why did Michael Brown, the former horse-trader and present
Administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, allow
FEMA to fail so spectacularly? Simply because he was not appointed
to manage emergencies. He was appointed to dismantle the Agency
– one of many Busheviks selected to "starve the beast"
of government bureaucracy.
Michael Brown, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, and
their sort fail to function as public servants because, as true
Randvillians, they believe that "there is no such entity as
'the public.'" There are only individuals responsible for their
own personal welfare. And so, when the storm approaches, the sole
responsibility of government, they believe, is to tell the citizens
to "get out of town, now!" No further thought as to how
these individuals are to manage their exit – and so the school buses
and the army trucks remain idle as the waters rise. No thought about
how those who are trapped in the city are to be fed, sheltered,
and protected. That's their misfortune. Government? It's "the
problem," not a solution.
In contrast, Rawlsburgers, who readily recognize the existence
of public goods and public interest, know how to work together in
the common interest. In the spirit of our founders and their Declaration,
they establish and support an institution, government, to act in
behalf of this public, "deriving its just powers from the consent
of the governed." Then they put government agencies in the
hands of qualified and dedicated individuals, like Bill Clinton's
brilliant FEMA Administrator James Lee Witt, who anticipate disasters,
prevent them whenever possible, and who plan and then implement
contingency plans when disaster strikes. When the disaster is imminent
and foreseeable, as was the case with Hurricane Katrina, rapid response
facilities are assembled close to the affected area, prepared to
take action at the earliest opportunity.
All this requires personnel, equipment and cash appropriations
– personnel and equipment that Bush preferred to deploy in Iraq,
and cash that Bush chose instead to give as tax "relief"
to his super-wealthy sponsors.
Adaptability that is "reality based" – founded upon
scientific information and practical experience – is the hallmark
of intelligence, and of effective and just governance. But the Busheviks,
contemptuous of "reality based" policies, are immobilized
by their Randvillian dogmas and by the dictates of their corporate
"stockholders." Thus they cannot adapt.
For proof, look to New Orleans and the Gulf coast.
Today, the port of New Orleans is closed, through which our leading
exports, agricultural products, flow to offset in small part our
gigantic trade deficits. In addition, imports of essential strategic
raw materials are blocked and must be re-routed to other ports,
ill-prepared to deal with them. This grossly
under-reported consequence of Katrina, along with the reduction
of Gulf coast petroleum and natural gas production, will have devastating
consequences for the U.S. economy. None of this can reasonably be
blamed on Al Qaeda or the Clinton Administration – not that Karl
Rove and his henchmen in the media won't try their damndest to do
Some very tough economic times are just ahead, and it's the Busheviks'
worst nightmare, for at last, the public at large may be forced
to face up to the enormity of the crimes and mal-administration
of Bush, Inc.
The ancient Chinese curse is upon us: "May you live in interesting
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website, The Online Gadfly
and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a
Progressive, which can be seen in-progress here.
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