Government failure and flood control

Great natural catastrophes can bring dramatic political change. This week’s attention to the Hurricane Katrina anniversary excepts no place or party from such consequences.

The 1985 Mexico City earthquake undermined the omnipotent pretensions of the ruling party, prompting reforms and finally, after some 70 years, the election of a president from another party.

Ponder an illuminating contrast. When many of Mexico City’s edifices crumbled 21 years ago, along with public services and power, citizens rallied spontaneously to direct traffic, keep supplies flowing and assure the populace’s survival. A year ago, in a culture that celebrates spontaneity, citizens of New Orleans were everywhere shown waiting for officialdom to move first.

The contrast, to be sure, may be overgeneralized, but it points to the singularly rude intrusion of government failure. Socialism, let’s be frank, reigned over Mexico for most of its people’s lifetimes (its lingering grip accounts for the continuing exodus northward).

The earthquake awakened the volitional nature of people who expected to be guided and cared for as long as they lived. Much of that nature, naturally, has since returned to slumber, as most of that city’s voting populace unsuccessfully tried to elect an unapologetic socialist their country’s president.

Now to New Orleans, whose jazzy rhythms move through this country’s capitalist economy even more than through its own precincts. If any U.S. city could be called the perfect laboratory for the political management of human activity — socialism, but in the preferred euphemism: liberalism — it would have to be the Crescent City.

When Katrina bore down and submerged the city, the world was treated to a horrible spectacle. Local and state officials waited for the federal government, which, out of constitutional necessity, could not move unbidden by local and state officials.

Worse, citizens long treated as wards were immobilized — first by the rising waters, then by implanted expectations of their imminent rescue. Such expectations, wholly unjustified, may be the most diabolical effect socialism has on people.

Katrina, of course, severely damaged the Bush administration, a political impact that reverberated from state to state. In California, Gov. Schwarzenegger hopped aboard helicopters to be seen assessing flood control channels in the Delta, which became a political cause célèbre.

The system, he found, did need serious fixing, and so he placed on the ballot a funding mechanism. Last week saw the failure of legislative plans, as the governor and Senate Democratic leader Don Perata wrangled over how much liability to assess flood-plain developers.

There may be legitimate reasons for a massive public works project. At the same time, however, post-Katrina Americans should heed their inner wisdom: We are on our own and should take our own precautions.

General OpinionOpinion

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