Arnold Kling  

Nasty, Brutish Looting

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Lee Harris writes,


To me, the looting came as no surprise: it was a completely natural phenomenon. It was exactly what my own theory of the social order would have predicted. What else should you expect when a civilized order collapses?

Thomas Hobbes probably would not have been surprised, either. I agree with Hobbes and Harris, which is why I am a libertarian believer in limited government and not a libertarian anarchist.

UPDATE: Don Boudreaux pushes back.


it’s not as clear to me as it is to Arnold that post-Katrina New Orleans points so unambiguously toward his interpretation. The fact is that government there has failed. Formally, government there exists – local, state, and national government, all part of history's wealthiest society. But government is not providing law.

Indeed. Government is not sufficient to provide law. I still believe that it is necessary.

But I think that the fair point is that New Orleans shows that law and order can break down, and that's a bad thing. It does not demonstrate, one way or the other, whether we need government.


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TrackBack URL: http://econlog.econlib.org/mt/mt-tb.cgi/346
The author at Catallarchy in a related article titled Civilized Order writes:
    Arnold Kling has a brief post that I'll quote entirely: Lee Harris writes, "To me, the looting came as no surprise: it was a completely natural phenomenon. It was exactly what my own theory of the social order would have predicted. What else sh... [Tracked on September 1, 2005 1:15 PM]
COMMENTS (17 to date)
T.R. Elliott writes:

I agree in general. Libertarianism should be the default until you can find a good reason to do otherwise. Anarchism just plain sucks.

Though I will point out: Hobbes idea of Nasty and Brutish existence is largely a creation of his own mind, a sort of fiction, a hypothesis. I think John Gray and William Ophuls both are good sources to explore this line of thinking further.

Ian Lewis writes:

There is a lot of value in Limited Government. There is also a lot of value in culture and values. Does anyone here think that this kind of looting would happen in Salt Lake City or Fargo (where the crime rate is much, MUCH lower than New Orleans)?

When North Dakota had those enourmous floods some years ago, I dont remember any mention of massive looting. Just a thought.

N. writes:

Neither Salt Lake City nor Fargo has the population density of New Orleans. I'm more inclined to believe that that factors more heavily in an absence of potential looting in those locations than the culture or values which the population might possess or claim to possess.

This is not to say that culture and morality don't matter, rather that with a larger number of people total (combined with the greater pressure placed on post-disaster resources that volume implies) looting and lawlessness are more likely to occur during emergencies.

Furthermore, I would argue that a looter has a much greater likelihood of getting recognized in North Dakota (and thus facing the negative consequences of his actions) than a looter in what remains of downtown New Orleans at the moment.

eddie writes:

Is it even possible for there to be massive looting in North Dakota?

jaimito writes:

Population density is irrelevant.

There were earthquakes in Japanese cities, no one touched anything.

I would not like to live in a city where people may be silently hoping for a disaster to start looting, raping, etc.

N. writes:

This is true; in the 1995 Kobe earthquake there were no reports of looting to my knowledge. There is nothing I can think of to account for that except the culture.

Common sense still dictates to me that with enough resource pressure the most polite population can become a murderous mob. As Brecht puts it, "even saints can act as sinners/when they haven't had their dinners."

I don't think that a society can be encultured to the point where they are willing to law-abidingly starve to death or die of exposure.

Can anyone provide any counterexamples?

Bud1 writes:

Perceived anonymity and population density are absolutely factors in post disaster response. The unique circumstances in this particular situation have no doubt fostered strong feelings of scarcity as well.

Victor writes:

What about Buloxi? Port Fourchon? Etc.? Have I missed the reports of looting in those locations? There is something in New Orleans that differentiates their case. Population density sure seems to be an intuitive factor (note: also there was likely a lot of self-selection in the group of people who fled versus those who stayed).

Michael Giesbrecht writes:

"I agree with Hobbes and Harris, which is why I am a libertarian believer in limited government and not a libertarian anarchist."

I guess I don't understand. Civilised order collapsed. What matters the form civilised order took prior to collapsing? Are you saying that a governmentally sustained civilised order will collapse in a more acceptable way? Well, what we are looking at is the collapse of a governmentally sustained civilised order. Why is that an argument against other forms of civilised order?

Jude writes:

I've always thought it rather lazy to blame anarchy for the human-induced death and destruction that invariably occurs in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. If there were a violent coup, complete with rape, murder and torture, would we sound the death knell for the theory of government? To evaluate the efficacy of anarchy, I think it only fair to give the market more than two days to solve some problems.

Robert Schwartz writes:

A philosopher friend of mine once suggested that the history of political philosophy would be more comprehensible if Hobbes were the most recent philosopher and the most recent philosophers had written in the middle of the 17th century.

jaimito writes:

N: don't think that a society can be encultured to the point where they are willing to law-abidingly starve to death or die of exposure. Can anyone provide any counterexamples?

I am not an American and from my point of view (in front of the TV) those people in New Orleans are overfed, fat and definitely NOT starving nor in danger of exposure. They seemed to leave the looted shops with electronical equipment like giant TVs.

About counterexamples, I think the best are from the British Fleets. Ships may derive waterless for weeks but discipline never breaks down. Population density, according to C S Forrester, was infernal in those British wooden ships. Another example of people trapped in a hell and yet conserving a functioning social order is the Krakow ghetto under Gans.

Victor writes:

To answer my own question from yesterday, I did indeed just "miss" the stories of looting from Mississippi. I hereby retract; the only difference in degree is that the organized thugs in New Orleans are (a) more numerous and (b) better trained in thuggery, I suspect.

William Woodruff writes:

Will someone explain this morally reprehensible policy of shooting to kill looters in Louisana, whilst looters in Iraq were permitted to walk away the country's treasure without disruption by US troops ?

William

S. O'Toole writes:

My take on this (from 1,000 miles away) is that there are likely two groups of looters. Group one is made up of hard core criminal types that stuck it out in NOLA with the plan of looting post storm. Group two are those second, third and fourth generation victims of the great society programs started some 41 years ago when the federal government took away all incentive to lead normal, productive lives. For 41 years these people have been handed everything by the state and now, with the state in disarray, their caregiver has abandoned them. I'm not sure we should expect behavior of any other sort.

However, libertarian anarchy would not be subject to these sorts of lawlessness as there would be no state benefactor to create the environment that nurtured the problems that led to what we are seeing in NOLA today.

Steve Sailer writes:

Comparing Kobe after the earthquake to New Orleans after the hurricane: The imprisonment rate for African-Americans is about 30 times the imprisonment rate for Asian-Americans.

Are you really all that surprised that there was looting and sniping in New Orleans and not in flooded towns in the Dakotas?

oliver writes:

Example from an 'extended state' response to disasters like these:
http://www.warandpiece.com/blogdirs/002471.html

It's not the time to get into this extremely complex issue right now, but I have the impression that, no matter how small the government, the last thing to go is military expenses. If taxes are lowered in order to 'slim down' big government, which expenses do you think will be cut first: the Pentagon's or national healthcare's? (Here the Laffer curve answer usually is: 'But governement income will go up if taxes are cut.' Lafferians seem to be stuck in a world where taxes are always at the right hand side of the laffer curve, no matter how low they are.)

I see on TV a wonderfully effective show of force by the American National Guards, waving their machine guns as if they're patrolling Bagdad. If only the relief efforts were just as swift and efficient!

Full disclosure: I'm a european, I feel extremely sorry for all victims of this disaster, and the above is NOT intended as disrespect to the victims (unlike http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A55850-2003Aug13?language=printer ) ... It's intended as a counterweight against all the small government cheerleaders, who are amazed at the lack of solidarity between civilians after having advocated the implementation of a 'every man for himself'-economics for decades.

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