When The State Disappears, People Band Together


One of the most common criticisms made of our belief in a small state, and limited government power, is that “in practice” it just wouldn’t work. This is a very convenient argument for those on the liberal left to make, because it is almost completely unfalsifiable. There have hardly ever been societies in which the state was totally or mostly absent, and in those places where it was – during wars, for instance – external factors meant that this inevitably led to disaster.

Hurricane Harvey was, of course, a disaster. Given the scale of damage and pain, I am very hesitant to draw any positives from that terrible storm. However, if we have to be positive, we must realize that it could have been much worse if people had not pulled together. All over the South-East of the US, the people of this fine country helped each other out, and this saved a lot of potential despair.

And critically, and as even the New Yorker pointed out, they didn’t need the government to do this. It seems that the people, set free from the strictures imposed upon them by government, fell back on their basic human decency. In this way, looking at what happened when Harvey hit offers a salutary lesson in what America would look like with minimal government – not only would it work, but our communities would become tighter and more self-reliant than they have been since the pioneer days.

The Response To Harvey

Remember Katrina? I think we all do. Watching the flood waters rise, and thousands of homeless pour out of the city, made for memorable viewing. However, what most sticks in my throat when I think back to those days was the totally inadequate response of the government, at all levels. Remember Bush, flying above the flooded city in Air Force One? Remember how to local and State governments collapsed under the pressures they were put under?

Well, it seems that in this regard we haven’t learned very much from Katrina. The terrified interviews that local lawmakers gave before Harvey hit made sickening viewing, for the simple reason that anyone could see they were totally unprepared for what was coming. Luckily, we’re Americans, and so we are used to dealing with things on our own.

Accordingly, even if Government had learned no lessons from Katrina, the people had. They organized themselves into response teams, and set up an incredible amount of infrastructure to help the victims of the storm. Among the most impressive outcomes of this community endeavour was the “mega-shelter” constructed in Austin, Texas.

Able to house up to 2,000 evacuees, the shelter was largely organised and built by volunteers. Though the city Council put forward the money to rent the site, it seems that when it came to organizing it took a step back and let the people get on with it. Marks of this community-based approach were evident in the range of facilities available: there was an air-conditioned tent for dogs and cats, an adequate number of portable toilets and shower trailers, and even a set of large gun cabinets to store the weapons of those who had fled with a firearm.

The Death Of Rhetoric

This shelter is but one example, of course, of efforts that took place across Florida and Texas to prepare for the storm. I do not mean to disparage the efforts of many thousands of volunteers across those states by picking out this one example. Rather, I want to use it to highlight what actually happens when the state retreats, and allows people the freedom to organize themselves.

The shelter is particularly notable because, you will have noticed, it went up in Austin. The city, as I’m sure you’re aware, is something of a liberal exclave, surrounded by a much more conservative and libetarian state. Arguments between the two groups are a common feature of the politics of the city, and often hamstring effective government.

It seems, though, that when they are given the opportunity to work together outside of the imposed framework of politics, people actually get on. Trump, for all his failings, put this pretty well just before Harvey hit, saying that:

When one part of America hurts, we all hurt. And when one citizen suffers an injustice, we all suffer together. Loyalty to our nation demands loyalty to one another. Love for America requires love for all of its people.

Clumsily put, perhaps, but the quote contains a great deal of truth. And although the liberal media greeted comments such as this with their customary sneering, just a few weeks later even CNN had to admit that he was right:

Look at Texas.

Not a lot of hatred, bigotry and political backbiting going on there right now. Well, maybe there’s a little backbiting, but it sure seems confined to the politicians.

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, what we’re seeing instead is a lot of good people looking for ways to help a lot of other good people.

Damn right. What they seem to have missed, though, is the important point here. That it was the state, throwing up its arms in despair and retreating from the public sphere, that allowed people to come together.

This, in turn, points to a deeper truth. The people of Austin, when they are allowed to meet each other and work toward a common goal, actually get on with one another. This may have come as a surprise to many people on both sides of the political divide, having been told by their political representatives that they have nothing in common. In fact, I would argue that it is politicians who create these imaginary divides, in order to prevent the population from realizing that we share more in common with each other than the elites that are in power.

The Small State Model

It could be argued, of course, that people only ignored their differences because their lives were at risk, and that it takes such exceptional events as Harvey to create this kind of unity. I don’t think so, however. My impression, in talking to those effected by the hurricane, is that the bonds of community that it created will not die out now that the storm has passed. Instead, it seems that people just needed an excuse to talk to their neighbor, some common purpose to bring them together outside of the combative realm of public politics.

Equally, I’m not arguing that the retreat of the state during Harvey should be permanent, nor I am proposing that we do away with the government altogether. Rather, I am suggesting that the prioritization necessitated by the hurricane provides a good model for governments going forward. To take an example, during the storm the police force really came into its own, helping those in need and focusing on the crimes that actually hurt people. They were not issuing parking tickets, and they were not arresting dope smokers. Perhaps, since the police response was acclaimed after the storm, the police force should consider this kind of prioritization more generally?

I will give credit where it is due, though. The response of the local government to Harvey was much better than to Katrina. But what was laudable in this response was more what the government did not do, rather than what it tried to do. In giving power to local residents and organizations, city councils recognized the limits of their power, rather than trying to impose order from above.

Comparing this response to that to Katrina is instructive. During Katrina, the city and state governments thought that they could do everything, and there were deep fears that if people were left to their own devices there would be widespread looting and crime. In the end, this was a self-fulfilling prophecy: the government tried to centralize the response, this broke down, and then people were left with nothing.

Of course, another contributory factor in New Orleans went much deeper – the city, it can be argued, is only held together by the exercising of government power. That is, without central authority, certain parts of the US are likely to descend into the anarchy that many on the left think is the natural outcome of trimming back the government. I would argue, on the contrary, that situations like this are not an argument for extended the power of government, but rather an invitation to reform and repair these communities.

In the case of Texas and Florida, it seems that local communities were strong enough, and untied enough, to respond to Harvey in an incredibly efficient way. I suspect that most communities, given even a week’s freedom from divisive political rhetoric, would do the same. Where divisions run more deeply, and I’m thinking here especially of the inner cities, we need to repair these communities so that they are able to self-organize in the same way. After all, Harvey will not be the last, nor the biggest, storm to hit America.