“Get government off our backs,” entoned Ronald Reagan. “Government is the problem, not the solution,” has been the mantra of conservatives for the last quarter century. And they had seemed to have convinced a major portion of the American electorate of the wisdom of their view –until we saw the disaster in New Orleans that followed hurricane Katrina.
They had wanted us to believe we don’t need government to provide support for the destitute. Abolish “welfare as we have known it.” We don’t need government to look after us in our old age. No need for Social Security; replace it with private investment accounts. We don’t need government to assure access to health care. Leave it to private insurance companies. We don’t really need government inspecting our meat or approving the drugs we use. No need for the Department of Agriculture or the Food and Drug Administration. We don’t need government monitoring the stock exchange to protect us from fraud and insider trading. No need for the Securities and Exchange Commission. We don’t need government policing our workplaces. Abolish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (and unions too while we’re at it).
Government is the enemy, is what they told us, not an instrument through which we can make our lives more secure and better. That is to be left to private initiative, to the free market. It is a beautiful thing this free market in which every individual pursues his or her own personal interests and thereby affects an optimal outcome for the entire society. This is the way the invisible hand works its wonders.
That’s the message our political leaders have been selling to us for too long. We don’t need an evacuation plan for when a hurricane strikes. Just get in your car and leave town. But what about all those poor people who don’t have cars? Apparently no thought was given to providing for public transportation. The approach was individualistic.
The conservatives want to shrink government and its social programs. Cutting funds for repair of the levees is part of their strategy of “starving the beast” to the point where they will be able to drown it in a bathtub. Well, Katrina has upset their plans. It is their philosophy that has been drowned in a flood instead.
Many Americans have been awakened to the fact that we need government. Not a government that rewards the rich with tax giveaways and corporations with lush contracts and free trade deals. But a government that ensures the common welfare of its people. It’s that understanding of what democratic government is for that has surfaced in the public anguish about New Orleans. A growing appreciation of the fact that we are all responsible for one another, that no man is an island, has surfaced in the flood of criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of the Katrina tragedy.
Americans are once again embarrassed before the peoples of the world. The richest and most powerful country in history is unable to cope with this natural disaster. It’s particularly embarrassing in view of the fact that last year poor little Cuba faced a hurricane of equal severity. But it mobilized its limited resources to evacuate 1.2 million people from coastal areas, taking TVs and refrigerators with them so they needn’t worry about looting, and placed them in homes (not stadiums). And not a single life was lost! The U.N. has pointed to Cuba’s disaster preparedness as a model. The U.S. falls far short of that standard.
The now discredited anti-government philosophy has guided public policy not only in the U.S. Our political leaders have foisted the same ideas on Latin America, where it is known as neo-liberalism. At the insistence of the World Bank and the IMF, leaders throughout the global South have been curtailing social programs, privatizing public assets, and turning the running of the economy over to the market –which amounts to turning it over to transnational corporations. At least since the 1980s here in Mexico the Cardenas era social supports have been weakened and the economy has been opened up to foreign investment and reoriented to export. Millions of Mexicans have been forced off their land, left to fend for themselves and are migrating in increasing numbers to El Norte in hopes of making a living. It is the same individualistic approach that has failed so in New Orleans.
Throughout Latin America people are waking up to the need for government — for a government that democratically represents the needs of the people — to ensure the common well being. The people of El Norte are now learning the same lesson.