The devastation wrought by Superstorm Sandy has shone floodlights on the workings of disaster relief—which many see as one of government’s core functions—as well as on Mitt Romney’s previously-stated desire to defund FEMA and privatize its functions. With less than a week to go before the American presidential election, it’s important to imagine what market-based disaster protection and relief would look like. Below, in a brief excerpt from Facing Catastrophe: Environmental Action for a Post-Katrina World, Rob Verchick explains why such an approach would never appropriately address the inequalities that disasters always exacerbate.
According to the market-based approach, hazard protection should be allocated the same way other goods and services are allocated in the marketplace. Protection should follow explicit or implicit market signals. The current resurgence in America of the market-based approach might accurately be said to have begun when President Ronald Reagan proclaimed in his first inaugural address: “Government is not the solution to our problem. Government is the problem.”
Reagan’s approach to market solutions is grounded in an intellectual movement called neoliberalism, a revived form of traditional liberalism that champions free markets and individual liberty in an economy gone global. As geographer David Harvey puts it, “[n]eoliberalism is in the first instance a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Some may believe that neoliberalism as a guiding principle is waning in the Obama administration. This is not entirely so. While it is true that President Obama and, perhaps, the public have embraced a more optimistic view of government and its role in American life, current economic forces will ensure that American law and international law continue to follow a market approach to solving big problems. Thus the goal, from a disaster justice perspective, is not to reverse the market approach (as it can’t be done) but to make space within the neoliberal framework for a vocabulary of justice. In this area, the Obama administration may prove a helpful ally.
From the neoliberal model, three relevant corollaries follow. First, neoliberal policy seeks the efficient allocation of resources. “Efficient,” here means optimizing aggregate social welfare in a context of limited political and material resources. “Efficient” does not always mean “fair,” and for this reason free-market ideology is sometimes described as “amoral.” Second, free markets are much better at allocating resources than are governments or other organized institutions. This is what Reagan meant by “Government is the problem.” Third, neoliberalism promotes an ethic—some would say “virtue”—of self-sufficiency and the stoic acceptance of unfortunate consequences. Individuals are expected to assume the risk of participating in the market, and to adapt quickly to changing landscapes. “Instances of inequality and glaring social injustice,” in this view, “are morally acceptable, at least to the degree in which they could be seen as the result of freely made decisions.” Indeed, as neoliberal philosopher Robert Nozick has argued, efforts to redistribute wealth in order to rehabilitate economic losers creates its own injustice by treating affluent individuals as a “means” to enhance the “ends” of those who are less affluent.
The market approach poses a problem for advocates of disaster justice for a couple of reasons. First, protection from disaster requires infrastructure, and infrastructure, because its benefits are shared, is hard to fund through private means. Second, justice (in the sense I use the term) requires attention to distributional outcome, and that value is not recognized in a purely market approach. The market approach has been especially hard on urban areas, where reliance on infrastructure is high and diversity is great. Geographer Stephen Graham notes that cities rely on “vast complexes of infrastructure, public works, and hazard mitigation systems,” which we normally take for granted as part of the “public realm.” The neoliberal attack on “big government” resulted in a draining of large- scale public works and social safety net programs on which urban populations rely. Indeed, the most prominent urban policies of neoliberals at the federal level emphasize voluntary services provided by churches and other nonprofit to help the needy. The result of these antiurban policies and fiscal shifts, according to Graham, “has been to make [metropolitan areas] intensely vulnerable to social and natural catastrophe, and to raise levels of violence and disorder.
That statement pretty much explains the scene in New Orleans after the federal levees broke. Weeks later, President Bush was promising “bold action” to subdue the entrenched poverty of the Gulf states. But his resolve did not last beyond the next news cycle. The problem was that bold action against poverty requires something far beyond what the small government approach can muster. Indeed, neoliberalism appears to have resulted in increased poverty and a much wider wealth gap. The same week that Katrina struck in 2005, a Census Bureau report was released showing that poverty had increased in America for the fourth straight year. According to the report, 5.4 million Americans had fallen below the poverty line, increasing the country’s poor population from 11.3 to 12.7 percent of the whole.
It sometimes seemed that conservatives were trying to lower any expectation that the government was capable of doing anything. John Tierney, then a regular columnist for the New York Times, argued for completely erasing the federal role in disaster response. “New Orleans and other coastal cities will never be safe if they go on relying on Washington for protection,” he wrote. Conceding the federal government’s duty to replace New Orleans’s flawed levee system, Tierney suggested that local residents should then rely only on private insurance and local response teams like fire departments. “Here’s the bargain I’d offer New Orleans,” he chirped; “the feds will spend the billions for your new levees, but then you’re on your own.”
Disaster victims since Katrina appear to be reluctantly taking this message to heart. After the 2008 floods and levee breaks in Iowa that swamped nearly 2,000 homes in Rapid City, flood victims soon complained about conflicting information they were receiving from federal agencies on everything from new building standards to government buyouts. Financial uncertainty was paralyzing the city’s rebuilding effort. Then New Orleans residents arrived and set up workshops explaining how to organize at the grassroots level and how to proceed without waiting for government aid or involvement. “When the New Orleans organizers showed up in town, we thought, ‘These are our allies,’ ” said one resident. “The bottom-up strength that New Orleans exhibited has to be our model.” The main piece of advice, described in a newspaper headline for this story: “Do it yourself.”
So yes, Americans are a practical, market-driven, self-reliant people. Nonetheless, Americans see a positive role for government, too. President Obama picked up on this sentiment and rode that wave to the White House. It was no coincidence that in the summer before his election, one survey showed that eight in ten Americans agreed with the following statement: “The social contract of the twentieth century, an agreement between the government, employers and society that affords Americans with basic necessities of the American Dream, appears to be unraveling.”
The most charitable critique of the market approach is that its followers are naive and misguided. Inspired by the myth of a self-correcting economy, market fundamentalists merrily send their fellow Americans into the woods to be devoured by wolves. More thoughtful market advocates will concede the danger of an unfettered market but insist that government intervention would make things even worse for everyone, including the poor. A less charitable—but still moderate—critique holds that market advocates know very well the wolves are out there, and probably think government intervention can successfully keep them at bay; but these advocates are unwilling, for selfish reasons, to adopt government protections because such protections would have the result of converting some private resources (enjoyed by the upper class) to public resources (enjoyed by everyone, including the lower class).