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September 12, 2005

There will be hell to pay for Katrina. 

"In my view, it is likely to have as traumatic an impact on American political life as the Great Depression of the 1930s. That catastrophe ushered in two decades of Democratic presidents - but even more, it reversed America's entrenched dedication to laissez faire Social Darwinism, a philosophy embraced by both major parties for 150 years.

"I do not believe that the power and duty of the General Government ought to be extended to the relief of individual suffering"
-President Grover Cleveland, 1877-


America has long been entranced by stories of fortunes made by hard work and perseverance without help from government. More tellingly many of them come true, truer in America than anywhere else. It is just that they are not the whole story. When people fail it leaves, exposed as a raw nerve, the question of moral duty in a civilized society.

So Social Darwinism has remained in the American psyche, sometimes submerged in the current, sometimes coming to the surface like a log in a fast-flowing river. Cleveland's sentiments might have popped up any time in the 1980s on Ronald Reagan's teleprompter. His remark that "government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem" was an echo of Cleveland and many presidencies thereafter.

The log came clearly into view again when turbulence in the wake of 9/11 led to the re-election of George W Bush. His instinct for low taxes and small government has been neatly encapsulated by the evangelical tax cutter Grover Norquist: "I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."

Before Katrina, America's greatest natural disaster was another Mississippi flood - that of 1927 - which made half a million homeless. At the time Republican President Calvin Coolidge refused even to recall Congress to vote emergency money. He was so inactive that when Dorothy Parker, a few years later, was told he was dead, she asked, "How do they know?"

Two hundred people had drowned in the 1920s before the federal government intervened. It did so in the person of the Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover. Only three died after Hoover got involved. He waded in - literally up to his knees in floodwater - galvanizing everyone in six endangered states.

His vigour standing on the tottering levee amid the raging floods helped to win him the Republican nomination and then the presidency. He was called "the great engineer".

My judgment is that the log of Social Darwinism will disappear again under the toxic flood waters of New Orleans. The corpses floating face down in the muddy overflow from broken Mississippi levees are too shocking a sight for Americans of all classes and parties. They are too kindly a people. They will look once again for vigour and compassion in government, even at the price of higher taxes."

I doubt reality will be as dramatic as all this but it is an interesting story with some great comments read the whole thing at BBC

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