David R. Henderson  

Rugged Communitarians

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Houston, we're solving our problems.

This culture really shines through during events like Hurricane Harvey. Despite what the narrative spinners would have you believe, we are not rugged individualists; we are rugged communitarians. We know that when times are tough, you must rely first on family, then friends, then neighbors, and then - and only if you're one of the few, unfortunate folks who cannot rely on any of those three - on the government. And if we have family, friends, or neighbors who can help, reaching out for government support is actually taking resources away from those who need them more.

In short, the best governance to rely upon is self-governance.

This is from Leo Linbeck III, "Hurricane Harvey: A View From a Rugged Communitarian," new geography, September 2, 2017.

The whole thing is well worth reading, both for its clarity and for its specificity.

The other thing I like, which is why I chose the quote above, is Linbeck's distinction between rugged individualism and rugged communitarianism.

If you've been an outspoken advocate of freedom for more than, say, a year, it's likely that you have been charged with believing in, and advocating, rugged individualism or selfishness. Critics may have charged you with believing in "Every man for himself and the Devil take the hindmost."

Linbeck does a nice job of showing that in fact, people used their freedom to take care of themselves first, but, once that was covered, to take care of others.

Another great excerpt:

However, a focus on Houston's public officials or public infrastructure will lead you away from the more important truth: our response was driven by thousands of Houstonians who voluntarily stepped up to the challenge, and didn't wait for some central authority to tell us what to do. The truth is that Houston's culture was its biggest asset, a culture of mutual support that is extraordinary in a city of this size and diversity.

And this culture is not an accident; it the consequence of a system that was designed to be driven from the bottom-up, by regular folks, responding to needs on the ground rather than some kind of theoretical plan put together by experts with no stake in our future, or interest in our family, friends, or neighbors.

COMMENTS (4 to date)
Joe Williams writes:

I can attest first-hand to the "rugged communitarianism" Leo Linbeck describes in his article. My family and I live in a city south of Houston, in which an estimated one-third of the homes flooded from the nearly 50" of rain that fell in four days due to Harvey. Luckily, my house was spared, but my in-laws' house was not.

Recovery at my in-laws' house "magically" appeared through the self-organizing efforts of various small, unrelated community units. Work colleagues arrived, as did volunteers through a grass-roots Facebook page. Even adults who grew up in the neighborhood and since moved, returned to help. None of this was organized by the local government - it spontaneously appeared through "rugged communitarianism" as Leo Linbeck describes.

As for my in-laws' house, we managed to gut the entire house in four days and are now waiting for the insurance adjuster to arrive. We wouldn't be in this good of a position, all things considered, had it not been for "rugged communitarianism."

Meanwhile, the local government's role in the Harvey recovery is essentially the same as it was before, only scaled up slightly: increased police protection through a curfew to deter looters, and increased trash pickup to clear storm and demolition debris. As for the latter, the debris is still by the curb, waiting to be picked up. We hear it might be several months before that happens. Likely had we needed to rely upon the central planning of the local government for all aspects of recovery, my in-laws would still have a wet, soggy house, waiting for clean-up.

David R Henderson writes:

@Joe Williams,
Thanks. You’re the same Joe Williams I had as one of my star students, right? I miss you and your group.

Fred_PA_2000 writes:

A quote from Fareed Zakaria writing on Slate
July 26 1996 ("The ABCs of Communitarianism"):

"C Is for Civil Society. Civil Society has nothing to do with Emily Post. It's a term used to describe that part of society that exists between the family and the state--voluntary organizations, choral groups, Rotary clubs, etc.

Alexis de Tocqueville noticed in the 1830s that America was brimming with them, and argued that they were good for democracy."

Thaomas writes:

The emphasis seems to me a kind of category mistake.

The creation of incentives for building, here rather than there (and knowing that the risks at "here" are greater than the risks at "there" by so and so much), building one kind rather than another kind of house or highway, having x% rather than y% of impermeable surface, have little to do with having lots of "communitarians" v "individualists" v "collectivists" in the population.

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