The flood waters have not receded yet — indeed they have been augmented — but the devastation that is much of New Orleans has attracted a coven of planners, visionaries, utopians, reformers and moral uplifters to dream at the Big Easy’s corpse. They don’t seek to pick the city’s bones clean, but to feast on funded dreams during the reconstruction.
To the country’s, indeed the world’s bien pensants, New Orleans, once the water has receded and the rubble is cleared away, represents a large-scale, irresistible virtual blank slate on which they would love to impose their particular vision of the ideal society. “We have a chance to build anew,” thinks everybody from advocates of faith-based and tax-financed rebuilding to those who favor “smart growth,” green spaces, high density, low density or urban villages. It looks as if the feds will provide $200 billion, maybe more, of the taxpayers’ money. Can we get it to finance our utopian vision?
For ordinary Americans the gathering of the planners is ominous but potentially instructive. A disaster that wipes away a whole city can give an insight into what our officials would do if they had the power they would really like to have.
For example, New Orleans Police Superintendent P. Edwin Compass, faced with evidence of looting, announced that he intended to allow only law-enforcement personnel to have weapons. Even as the old saw about only outlaws having guns was playing out before his eyes, he displayed fealty to the fantasy that inanimate objects, not immoral human beings, cause violence.
How many law enforcement officials would really like to confiscate all weapons if they had the chance? And don’t even bring up outmoded relics like the Second Amendment.
Michael Olivier, who as Louisiana’s Secretary of Economic Development will play a big role in the process, told National Public Radio that he envisions a lot of green space and top-down planning. We can’t depend on anything so chaotic as “urban sprawl” to rebuild the city, he said, and as for traditional American attitudes toward private-property rights, it’s time to “accept that we have to do it differently.” In service of his vision, of course.
When decisions about economic activities are made through the political process, every ethnic and interest group lobbies to get a piece of the action, if only in the form of mandates and set-asides. Thus new projects in New Orleans are likely to be required to be faith-based and open to gays and lesbians, free of discrimination except for ethnic quotas, environmentally sensitive and rooted in private property, respectful of privacy and open to all.
Oh, what a tangled web we weave. But lawyers and lobbyists will thrive.
Planning is seen in some circles as the key. But everybody in this world plans — or drifts or dies. When the coercive power of government is put behind the grand plans of one faction, the result is to annul the plans that individuals were making for themselves and make it difficult for them to shape their future — unless their only plan is to obey the new order.
The option genuinely rooted in the American tradition — allowing the people who live and work in a place to make their own decisions about their own lives, without imposing them on others who are equally entitled to make their own plans so long as they don’t impinge on the legitimate rights of others, all done through voluntary interaction in an open economic and intellectual marketplace — will probably not get much consideration.
But it would work best.