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.