Storm of ideologies follows Katrina

It has been interesting to read both left-wing and right-wing commentators in the days since Katrina flooded New Orleans. Virtually all of the comments have been directed at the plight of the poor who remained behind. Naturally enough, most of these poor people are blacks.

The right-wing commentators have been disgusted that blacks were roaming the flooded streets of the city, looting and inflicting violence. Why should people want to believe that blacks are victims of a racist system when they are obviously being the aggressor here? I even read posts where people lambasted the poor for not getting off their behinds and training themselves up to become more employable. If they weren't so lazy, they would have better jobs and be able to afford the cars needed to evacuate the city.

The left have also been arguing their standard line. The poor are poor because the entire system is geared against them. Put of out sight and out of mind, the poor in New Orleans were never at the forefront of anyone's mind until they started drowning by the thousands. Their deaths are the result of an economic and political system that does not care for people.

Those of you who know me will realise that I am more left-leaning in my politics and economics - which means, of course, that my own opinions lie pretty much with the left-wing commentators on this issue.

But I am not a formal part of the "left-wing blogosphere", which means that my postings are not going to be tiresome fusilades against incompetent Bush sycophants or arguing about how the Florida recount would've given Gore victory in 2000 and how yada yada yada. I hate overtly political posts that seem to be written by party hacks - from both sides of politics.

I have, however, discovered in my readings from various US newspapers that the tragedy has torn away some of the basic assumptions held by many Americans, and laid them bare for closer examination.

Many mainstream newspaper commentators naturally come from a left-wing bias, but in the past week these commentators have moved on from addressing the microcosm of the tragedy (the warnings, FEMA, the Superdome, etc) to addressing the macrocosm.

In short - the entire right-wing economic ideology is now being questioned.

What is this ideology? For those of you who don't know, it is essentially the tenets of Neoliberalism, or what in Australia is known as "Economic Rationalism". ie small government, tax cuts, welfare cuts and a continual shrinking of government influence in the market and in people's lives.

Quite a number of these commentators have pointed out that this ideology has been followed faithfully by every single Republican administration since 1981. Their argument is that in the 24 years that America has been subjected to neoliberal economic policy, why is it that the nation still has such massive problems?

By accident, the tragedy in New Orleans coincided with a Federal government report which showed that America's poverty rate has increased in the last four years. Apparently this rate has been declining for decades, but has, since George W. Bush became president, begun to rise. Considering the fact that America has experienced moderate economic growth and low unemployment over that time period, why is it that more people are poorer?

Moreover, other commentators have pointed out that, for all the hoo-hah that conservatives make over their "pro-life" stance, other statistics indicate that America's infant mortality rate has been bettered by Cuba. When the mortality rate is compared from city to city, there are some major US cities (like New York and Washington) that compare very unfavourably to places like Beijing.

So why, after 24 years of tax cuts, spending cuts and a "hands off" approach are things still so bad?

The answer now appears to be quite plain - the system does not work. Neoliberalism is now being seen as a failure. The fact that it has been adhered to for so long and given so much time to work - or in this case, not work - means that critics have been given a very powerful argument against it.

Typically, neoliberals and the right generally have used the Katrina experience to promote their politics. They point at Democratic politicians like Ray Nagin (the mayor of New Orleans) and Kathleen Blanco (Governor of Lousiana) as being the prime cause of failure. What is not needed, they argue, is increased statism - more government spending and influence in society/economy. They argue that the poverty in New Orleans was actually due to welfare dependence itself, and that by reducing or cutting welfare entirely, these lazy blacks would get off their collective behinds, learn how to look after themselves and have a bright future.

What this argument ignores, however, is the fact that welfare spending right across America has been slashed continually for 24 years. If poor people can be brought out of poverty by having little or no state-sponsored welfare, then surely this would have been reflected in real life since 1981. No matter how faithful you are to an ideology, no matter how philosophically correct it might seem, what is the point of holding to it if it doesn't work?

There is only one other historical parallel with this situation - except that it comes from the other side of the political fence. That parallel is Soviet Russia.

It was quite obvious by the mid-1970s that Communism in the Soviet Union was no longer able to compete economically with Western market economies. From 1945-1970, the Soviet Union was able to match every western nation in terms of economic output and continually improving social indicators (such as infant mortality rates, poverty rates, preventable disease rates and so on). During that time they also developed their own nuclear weapons and many conventional weapons equal to those in the west (eg. the AK-47 assault rifle and MiG-15 jet fighter). That the Soviets were also able to beat the US in launching the first satellite and the first man in space speaks volumes of their ingenuity and, to be honest, their threat to the West.

But by the 1970s, everything had begun to slow down. Despite all the theories and all the different programs initiated, Soviet economic growth had stagnated. Experts now understand that the entire collectivist system did not reward efficiency or productivity gains - gains that could not be made within a system that did not have any formal market structure. It wasn't until Mikhail Gorbachev begun his economic reforms in the mid-1980s that things began to change.

But during that period of stagnation, there were many theorists and economists within Soviet Russia that continued to argue for greater and greater adherence to communist economic ideology. The answer to their problems was not to depart from communism, but to enforce it even more strictly.

In the cold light of history, these people were dead wrong. The same can be said now for those neoliberals who advocate even more adherence to pure capitalism. If it's so good, why hasn't it worked for the last 24 years?

But for whatever reason, objective and scientifically constructed statistics which prove that America is lagging behind other nations are dismissed and even ignored totally. In almost every case, social indicators like infant mortality, poverty, preventable diseases, average educational attainment, murder and so on, America is embarrassingly behind more the more "socialist" nations that are found in Europe and other parts of the world.

There is no doubt that America rates better in issues like GDP and unemployment, but GDP is only high because the American rich are very rich. Moreover, it appears that the unemployed in Europe are better looked after and are generally happier with their lot than American low-wage earners.

You might think that I have too rosy a picture of Europe and a too negative view of America. I'll respond to that simply by saying that there is no way that Europe's system could be considered perfect - there is still much to be done in reducing unemployment levels and lifting GDP. As far as having too negative a view of America - maybe it's you that has a too rosy view of the US.

The fact is that the strict free-market capitalism that is promoted and adhered to by its ideologues in the US is as empty and as inefficient as the strict communism that was promoted by Soviet ideologues back in the 1970s. What is needed is a recognition that government and private enterprise can and should exist side-by-side in a truly free society. The market cannot produce from itself things like universal health care, law enforcement and public education - in the same way that the government cannot efficiently produce the raw materials, services and consumer goods that the market is so good at controlling.

What Hurricane Katrina has shown is the reality that is America - government inefficiency, hidden poverty and ideological stubbornness.

If you'd like to more about what I think about related topics, check out the following articles:

From the One Salient Overlord Department

© 2005 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.


Mooser said...

It's pretty obvious you don't live in America. Or know very much about it.

Listen, Salient, don't confuse the names a system gives itself and the actions it claims to take with what actually goes on here.

"Neo-liberal", "smaller government" and all that are just verbiage to fool the rubes and give political commentators something to talk about.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...

Whew! Some people have a really bad attitude when discover I'm not based in America.

It says a lot about some Americans doesn't it?

Alistair Coleman said...

The most ...uh... salient oversights come from those outside the system, and are unblinkered by its own workings.

Neo-liberalism assumes that the poor have the drive to become rich and seems to think that withdrawing the crutch of welfare is steach them a lesson. Does not work.

David C. Kanz said...


Too bad most of us who name the name of Christ in the United States do not have the discipline or desire to really read what you said on your site and on the Challies web site.

It is much easier to be the non-thinking slave of the Republican party. Please don't confuse us with what we ultimately will be accountable for----feeling good is our priority and blaming the homosexuals, evolutionists, liberals and their like for the condition of America is much more convenient.

We just want $5.00 worth of God, please. Much more than that may actually bring about us seeing the truth.

Get behind and push.....

Auros said...

Hi O-S-O, I came over from Brad DeLong's site.

I think you make an excellent point, one that's related to that made by Risa Goluboff and Richard Schragger (associate professors at the University of Virginia Law School) in Slate yesterday.

Basically, they made the same point, but about GOP judicial philosophy: the Republicans have been arguing, for about seven decades, that the role of the federal government should be limited, that the gov't should not have the power to regulate safety, mandate disaster mitigation, or take in the kind of taxes needed to actually make such things workable. Well, now we've been handed a huge example of why it is that we gave the gov't those powers, and why we need to fund it and fill it with well-paid, competent people. Those "wasteful federal bureaucrats" might save your life.

One quibble -- I know that "neoliberalism" is, in fact, the original name of this economic philosophy, but when referencing it in a US context, I'd recommend using "neo-classical", "Austrian", or "supply side" (the last being the most recognizable). This is because in the US, "neoliberal" has a very different meaning -- the Clintonian / "Third Way" / "New Democrat" model, of regarding gov't as a potential force for good and a guardian of the public welfare, but still applying good management practices -- looking carefully at how to make government efficient and effective. Al Gore was charged with actually implementing this philosophy in the "Reinventing Government" initiative, with mixed results across the whole executive branch; James Lee Witt's FEMA, actually, was one of the stand-out successes. And of course, the other great success of American neoliberalism was the production of fiscal surpluses.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...


Thanks for your encouragement. I truly want the best for the body of Christ, and much of what is seen in American evangelicalism is present throughout the world.

This whole experiment of evangelicals taking right-wing values upon themselves uncritically will eventually come back and bite them... hard.

Neil Cameron (One Salient Oversight) said...


Thanks for the advice re neoliberalism. I may even redo this article as a result to take that into account.

And thanks for taking the time to read it.

David C. Kanz said...


It already has bitten....

In 1968 the Christian Medical Association and Christianity Today sponsored a symposium on when life begins.

In their final findings they stated that "the fetus is a potential human being" and that is all that could be derived from an examination of scripture.

Jump to 1972-Roe v. Wade-and what do we find in the ruling of the United States Supreme Court but the very words uttered by this "Christian" symposium. I think you can logically you can deduce that someone was listening....as they are now.

The question is: what are "they" hearing?

I have added a couple of statements and questions on the Challies blog re: the mayor of New Orleans. The response from some is rather hostile for folks who name the Name...but that is not unusual these days when you ask questions which demand more than a moronic hand puppet regurgitation of media generated nonsense.

A wholesale return to historical, Biblical Christian Creed, Faith and Practice is our answer. The tools are 200-500 years old. The Christians that were trained during the Reformation are the kind I want to be part of training.

After all, the results of proper Christian training only altered the face of the earth and was the catalyst for what we know as Western Civilization.

Anonymous said...

I think you're on the right track regarding current inefficiencies in government, but I think you've given the so-called Right in America far too much credit for their "accomplishments". My view is that the rhetoric for smaller government has gone unfulfilled and that under our current president in particular, the federal juggernaut has grown immensely.
I strongly disagree with your statement that "The market cannot produce from itself things like universal health care, law enforcement and public education"
Without the inflation of costs caused by an ever increasing supply of public money, health care would be much more affordable for all.
The same goes for the quality of education. It is not for lack of money that our public education system is a wreck. Counterintuitive as it seems, guaranteed funding has fed a mestasizing education bureaucracy that is a model of inefficiency. Again, without the cost inflation caused by public overfunding of government schools, private institutions would flourish and be available to all who cared enough to send their kids to them.
Law enforcement? The more local the better. A small town or neighborhood is not going to hire Rambo to police their streets, but they will allow a competent professional to do his job at preventing crime in their area, without the threat of liability that exists in larger police forces today. Our current regional forces often employ officers with no personal stake in the communities (or war zones) they police. They tend to do things like confiscate the private property of crime suspects and use the proceeds from the sale to further militarize the force in preparation for the next big bust.

You state that we need to recognize "that government and private enterprise can and should exist side-by-side in a truly free society." I'm with you all the way - as long as the seat of that government exists a few miles from my home and I can talk directly to the folks that me or my neighbors have voted into those offices when the need arises.

There has not been a meaningful reduction of state sponsored welfare since Social Security was introduced in the 1930s.
Once the federal government started competing with private charity, selfless giving to the poor was reduced and unabashed vote buying began. The disappearance of mutual aid societies since the 1930s is directly related to this trend.
While I find your criticism of the status quo to be relevant, I respectfully disagree with your intended solutions, which is basically just a redistribution of a public pie that is already far too large to entrust to any gruop of human beings, let alone to an unaccountable bureaurcratic monolith like the US federal government.

For an overview of how private mutual aid societies carried out many of the functions that government has since usurped, check this link (first time posting here - don't know if whole link will show):


Anonymous said...

Pasting my link above into your browser address window, go to the link for "Healthcare, Welfare & Social Security"

Anonymous said...


Found my way here from Jim Kunstler's site and I must say I enjoyed your post. On the subject of the peculiar brand of Christianity that dominates so much of American politics I recommend you read "The Christian Paradox" from the August 2005 edition of Harpers magazine.

You can read it online here http://yuricareport.com/Religion/ChristianParadoxGetsJesusWrong.html