6/23/2008

Echoes of Katrina: A Case for Conservatism

The major weather story this month concerns the terrible flooding in the Midwest. Torrential rains upstream have caused what is now being described as a 500-year flood. Communities all along the Mississippi River are being destroyed by floodwaters racing through breaches in levees, some of which may have been unacceptably weak to begin with. Dozens of lives have been lost and losses from crops and businesses total in the billions.

The biggest tragedy, however, is that many residents affected by these floods had no flood insurance. Some of them didn't feel they needed it. Others said they were "misled" by federal authorities who suggested they didn't need it. And others still believed the levees in their communities would protect them from the rivers nearby.

This introduces a teachable moment that shows the appeal of conservatism and the role of individuals in society. The inspiration for this blog post came from a well reasoned defense of conservatism written by Rick Frea over at Freadom Nation. In short, Hurricane Katrina and the California wildfires last fall should have taught homeowners everywhere about the importance of taking precautions.

But apparently, these lessons were lost on those who most needed to hear them.

A house is the single most important and most valuable investment a person will make in his lifetime. Not purchasing adequate insurance seems illogical at best and irresponsible at worst. If you live on a floodplain near a river that periodically overflows, you need to purchase flood insurance.

Purchasing a home without purchasing insurance is akin to driving an expensive car without insurance. It might save you a little money to drive without insurance each month, but when you get in an accident or get pulled over by the police for a traffic violation, all the money you saved by skimping on insurance is more than offset by having to pay a hefty no-insurance fee or having to pay for a new car out of pocket. And no matter how careful a driver you are, there are times when accidents and poor drivers are simply unavoidable.

This is the conservative position. Because these families were negligent, they have lost everything. Many of them are blaming FEMA and the government for not telling them they needed to purchase flood insurance. But you shouldn't need the government to tell you that. If you live near a major river that has flooded before and is likely to flood again, you have no one to blame but yourself when the inevitable happens. This flood has affected both liberal and conservative counties in Iowa, Missouri, and Illinois. And liberals and conservatives alike are blaming the government for not protecting them. But whose fault is that?

One of the criticisms of conservatism is that it is too harsh or insensitive, particularly when it comes to personal responsibility, self-reliance, and helping those in need. However, what can be said for people who are knowingly negligent? Should responsible homeowners in other parts of the United States be forced to use their tax dollars to subsidize the negligence of uninsured homeowners who should have known better?

The frequent rains should have given these homeowners and river communities sufficient warning. The flooding in Wisconsin should have given at-risk communities downstream sufficient warning. Hurricane Katrina should have given waterfront communities everywhere sufficient warning. The historic floods of 1993 should have given residents of these low-lying areas sufficient warning.

And yet, so many homeowners didn't heed these warnings.

These communities should rebuild, just as New Orleans should rebuild. After all, if these communities disappear and people move away from the Mississippi River and its surrounding floodplains, who will manage our shipping lanes? Who will plant our corn, raise our livestock, and grow our wheat?

Natural disasters are unavoidable, and they can happen anywhere. There are earthquakes on the West Coast, hurricanes in the Southeast, wildfires in the West, blizzards in the Northeast, tornadoes in the Great Plains, and flooding near any river. But home is home, so it may not be practical for a person to simply pack up and move. But even though you may be at the mercy of nature, you should at least have the wisdom to protect yourself, your family, and your home by making sure you have the proper insurance.

Perhaps liberalism would have helped protect these homeowners by providing them with appropriate flood maps, building subsidies, insurance requirements, and levee improvements as Barack Obama has criticized John McCain for not supporting. But part of the beauty of being an American is that even though we may need help at times, we are ultimately the masters of our own domain. And nothing good could be said of a government or a nation that must take it upon itself to protect its own people from themselves.

The Republican brand may be damaged, but with the right messenger, conservatism could find a larger audience.

8 comment(s):

Brett said...

Some comments about the Freadom Post-

If that was a "well-reasoned" defense of Conservatism at the Freadom blog, then I weep for its future. Much of what he said was nonsense - not only Johnson but the Democratic Party won massively in 1964, and they did it because Democratic ideas (including New Dealesque ideas like the Great Society) were still immensely popular among the American public. Advertising did play a role - Goldwater was possibly the worst presidential candidate in terms of image in recent history - but it would have meant nothing if Conservative ideas were supposedly as popular as he said.

His responses were similarly unimpressive. You pointed out that when someone does something stupid, they can become a burden on society, and therefore should be helped even if you are afraid of a "Moral hazard" issue (which I feel is over-rated). What was his response? He sort of responded to it with his "government should help people with incentives and the like", but it was a stock response, and did not really address the heart of the issue in my opinion.

The issue is, as you pointed, a major criticism of American Conservatism. I think it is perhaps the greatest flaw in the American Conservative movement, and is why I'm a liberal.

Brett said...

That said, there is one comment I should make. I support government aid for the displaced, but it really should be a focus of this aid to re-locate people when it is a type of disaster which regularly occurs in a relatively recent time frame. While I don't think "Moral Hazard" is as treacherous as the conservatives make it out to be, it CAN be a dangerous thing when you have cumulative breaches of it over the same issue.

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, your points about the need for people to act sensibly and responsibly in their own best interest make perfect sense.

Of course people in areas vulnerable to flooding should get flood insurance. They should also have a buddy system, to warn and check on neighbors, especially the elderly and handicapped. They should have an evacuation plan and maybe even disaster kits stored on higher ground, just in case.

We can quibble about what people who can afford neither a home on high ground nor flood insurance are supposed to do. Also, about the responsibility of the Corps of Engineers and other agencies for engendering a false sense of security because of the presence of levees, and maybe because levees had been declared reliable enough when they weren't.

And then there's the matter of the flooding being of a severity expected only once in 500 years. Try asking a senior citizen on a modest, fixed income who wants to spend her final years in her home to lay out the money for preventive or insurance protection sufficient to cover a 500-year flood.

Still, I recognize it's a weakness of human nature to deny and put off dealing with the unthinkable. It's a weakness too many give in to. It was summed up in a clever popular song recorded by Peggy Lee in the 1940's, "MaƱana is Good Enough For Me."

Having said all that, I won't go along with your claim of common sense and personal responsibility being exclusively conservative virtues. That's not true, not fair and not called for. You're reciting bogus stereotyping of a kind that has helped land far too many liars, crooks and incompetent Neanderthals in high political office over the past three decades.

You'd be hard put to come up with a believable — as opposed to politically self-serving — reason why liberals would prefer for people to repeatedly lose their homes, farms and businesses to flooding. Or lose those things to the fires propelled by Southern California's annual Santa Ana winds, or to mud slides,or whatever.

America has traditionally not been a place where people are required by law to demonstrate financial responsibility before they're allowed to buy or rent property. With weather becoming more violent and erratic, maybe that's coming. If it does, I don't think it will be an exclusively conservative or liberal measure, or something either side will take particular delight in.

Anthony Palmer said...

Brett and SWA,

There is one big problem with conservatism as it applies to these disasters. While prior preparation and pragmatism may help minimize the extent of the grief and damage from such disasters (or possibly avoid them altogether), conservatism does not sufficiently address the issue of what happens when someone falls through the cracks?

Now there are thousands of people who are displaced, many of whom have no insurance, lost their farms, lost their cars, and lost their businesses. What are they going to do now? How are they going to live? "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps" seems fine in principle in this regard, but I think most people simply won't or can't do it. Conservatives will look at those who "won't" as drains on society who like feeding at the government trough of handouts without trying to improve themselves. Liberals will look at those who "can't" as people who really need help, such as the elderly or the poor. The problem lies in having to discern between both types of "victims."

And then what is more likely to happen when you have no options and are desperate? You are more likely to turn to crime or drugs or abuse of social services, and that affects all of us far more than providing these at risk people with help before their situations become so severe. So liberalism does have a place too.

And finally, we should be able to trust our government officials to tell us the truth and tell us what we need to know to make informed decisions. No disagreements there. But after "we'll be greeted as liberators" and "heckuva job" and "I can't recall," I think voters should have learned by now to be a bit more skeptical of their elected leaders and seek the truth on their own or trust themselves more than the government.

Very thoughtful comments.

S.W. Anderson said...

"There is one big problem with conservatism as it applies to these disasters. . ."

I'm far from perfect, but have tried hard to be personally responsible. I expect others to do likewise. However, even through the years when the term had been demonized, I had no problem with wearing the "liberal" label rather than that of "conservative."

There are many reasons, but a big one is that whenever conservatives get their hands on the levers of power, the cracks people can fall through become more numerous and bigger. And not surprisingly, more and more people fall through those cracks.

Over the past seven and a half years, federal policy has been to reward the wealthy for being well off and punish the rest for not being so well off. All the while seeing to it there are more not-so-well off people while helping the rich get richer and become slightly more numerous.

That's a long way from expecting/encouraging people to be personally responsible and self-reliant. It's choosing up sides in a perverse, selfish, Robin Hood-in-reverse way.

S.W. Anderson said...

Here's another thing to think about and maybe discuss, since I seem to be on a roll here.

Imagine a great river. Imagine along the riverbank on one side you've got a dozen McMansions, $750,000 to $1.5 million apiece. At the water's edge, there are sandy beaches and docks with expensive boats moored. Imagine that some of the owners of those luxury homes have bought very expensive flood insurance and the rest say they have enough money to cover their own losses if something happens.

Imagine that on the other side of the river you've got a couple of small farms and two-dozen very modest homes — shacks, basically. A few of them have homemade docks with little rowboats tied up. The farmers have crop insurance that covers flooding, but no one on this side of the river has, or can afford, flood insurance.

Imagine that after a few years a flood inundates land and structures on both sides of the big river. The insurance company's payout to the owner of the $1.5 million property alone is greater than the total losses of all the shack dwellers and two farmers on the opposite side put together.

Setting aside notions about financial responsibility and equity, people on which side of the river have cost the economy more? Was it the people who, despite the flood risk, chose to build very expensive luxury homes right by the river, or the poor folks with small farms and shacks, and no flood insurance?

Consider that question again, if the government steps in and makes the poor people without insurance whole.

Interesting, wouldn't you say?

Anthony Palmer said...

SWA,

I like the way you articulate your points. Very thoughtful and detailed.

This is the key paragraph that you wrote:

There are many reasons, but a big one is that whenever conservatives get their hands on the levers of power, the cracks people can fall through become more numerous and bigger. And not surprisingly, more and more people fall through those cracks.

You are right. I have no disagreements with what you wrote whatsoever. Personal accountability, when abused or taken to an extreme level, would seem to require absolutely everyone to be good at managing risk in the stock market, knowing the ins and outs of investing and insurance, eat only healthy foods, and buy no luxury items or anything they really don't need.

However, in an age when so many people can't even program their DVD players or access their voice mail, it's simply unrealistic to demand so much from people. So you are right--it's not fair for well-intentioned, but ignorant people to have to jump through an unfair amount of hoops just to keep their heads above water. Conservatives might say it's fair because "they reap what they sow," but too many people get left behind when that happens. And that hurts everyone.

Consider abstinence-only education, for example. Obviously, abstinence is the only 100% way to avoid STDs or unwanted pregnancies. Fine. We all get that. But there is no way you will get every teenager in the country to practice abstinence until marriage. It's not going to happen. So when a teenager "falls through the cracks" and can't practice abstinence anymore, what's going to happen to them? Yeah, they'll get pregnant and will have to live with the consequences. But then what? There's no way to let all these millions of people sit there with a baby, no education, and no opportunities. The dominoes will fall quite rapidly and easily after that in the absence of intervention. Are conservatives really prepared to let all those people fall behind? Yeah, they screwed up, but what comes next?

So you and I are in total agreement there. I appreciate the thoughtful comments and the way you can debate politics without being argumentative.

I guess a good way to phrase this debate is that conservatism may help prevent problems, but liberalism can help prevent them from getting worse. What do you think of that statement?

S.W. Anderson said...

AP, thanks for the kind words. I appreciate the chance to discuss these things without snark and personal attacks, both of which are too prevalent in the blogosphere.

We are in agreement. Civilized society is a living organism. If part of it is injured, becomes infected and is left to go its own way, the result can be sickness and death to the whole thing — just like the human body.

It's unfortunate but true that a distinguishing feature between many conservatives and liberals is that conservatives would rather let 12 needy people go hungry than take a chance on feeding free meals to one or two who aren't really needy, while liberals would rather feed a dozen slackers than make one or two genuinely needy people go without.

I also tend of think of society as a garden. It might be possible to plant a garden, walk away and let weeds and bugs creep in and do their thing, and still get some yield. But it's certain that by tending the garden, pulling weeds and dealing with pests, you'll get a higher yield of better crops.

I was brought up to believe that we should do some things because they are right, kind and decent, even if not always successful and/or appreciated. I was taught to believe that being that way makes me a better person, and the world needs all the better people it can get. So, there's some enlightened self-interest involved.

Then, there's the wealth thing. I long ago accepted the fact that, like most people, I didn't come into this world rich and won't leave it that way, either. You can't take it with you, so why make life a constant losing battle over every last cent?

Radical leftists and radical conservatives are both wrong, in that their designs go against human nature. There is a golden mean wherein most people are free to do, and encouraged to do, their best in their own self-interest. While, at the same time, people who for a host of reasons can't or won't become high achievers aren't left to starve, suffer and maybe descend into crime and/or revolt.

A key to doing better is to make sure that the nonwealthy, non-high-achieving aren't made that way or kept that way by the wealthy and high achieving. Whether they articulate it just that way or not, I think that's what most liberals favor, and it's why I am a liberal.

The late Molly Ivins had a deceptively simple tautism for it: "We all do better when we all do better."

Copyright 2007-2008 by Anthony Palmer. This material may not be republished or redistributed in any manner without the expressed written permission of the author, nor may this material be cited elsewhere without proper attribution. All rights reserved. The 7-10 is syndicated by Newstex.