05/31/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Orleans Is Not a Libertarian Experiment

There's been a boomlet of blog posts and articles lately from conservatives and libertarians professing the idea that the small-scale successes in New Orleans' recovery are good evidence not just for the ideals of self reliance and bottom-up initiative (which they certainly are), but for the idea that all you need to rebuild the city is elbow grease. Get the government (and unions) out of the way, and watch wonderful things happen -- proving that government is the problem.

The most compelling of these is a piece in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal. It's filled with examples of how, given the fumbling redevelopment efforts of the city government, most of the reconstruction has been accomplished by residents and NGOs. Their creative efforts, accomplished in the face of endless red tape and wrongheaded urban planning, are indeed a bright spot, a good harbinger for the city's future. For example:

Architect Byron Mouton is finding that his middle-class and affluent clients are doing the different in pursuit of the practical. In Gentilly, a neighborhood of mostly twentieth-century homes that took seven feet of water, one client, an artist, wanted a new flood-resistant house like the one his neighbor is building, with a bottom floor raised at least a story off the ground, but couldn't afford the $30,000 to $40,000 extra charge. The architect's solution: a "disposable" first floor that the client will use for nonessential purposes. In Mouton's design, the second floor contains the kitchen, art studio, and living space, as well as an ample porch so that the artist won't be cut off from the outdoors. In other twentieth-century neighborhoods, some homeowners are similarly designing ground floors as "floodable" car garages or children's play spaces.

There are lessons here on the nature of post-disaster recovery and the role of government: Sometimes it's better for the planners to get out of the way. (This Gambit post gets into some of that.) Unfortunately, the piece way overreaches; it becomes a tendentious attempt to impose a libertarian ideal on a place that no amount of individual effort or entrepreneurship alone will fix. Here's the piece's framing paragraph:

New Orleanians have achieved much of this success by doing what New Yorkers couldn't do after 9/11: ignoring the potentates and eggheads hankering to turn devastation into conceptual art. They've been building and rebuilding on their own or with small-scale help, rather than under top-down decree--and, in the process, showing that thousands of individual planners are better than one master.

Yes, government at all levels has failed New Orleans. And individuals have done their best to make up for it, often with minimal government support and a great deal of government interference. But that doesn't mean those people wouldn't be a lot better off with a government that actually was working to help them.

The basic predicament of New Orleans -- its siting, mostly below sea level, on an eroding, hurricane-prone river delta -- is extraordinary and requires a sustained national, i.e., federal, commitment. Without one, the city may not even be there in 100 years. But it's not getting it. (Even the 17th Street canal floodwalls are still, ominously, leaking.) Any long-term planning for the city should be looking at ways to tie flood control structures into a single system, and integrate that with the urban landscape, with neighborhoods and homes. This includes things like the drainage canals running along backyards, evacuation routes, and emergency planning. In other words, New Orleans must be seen as a whole, part of a larger environment. If that's going to happen, it desperately needs more competent government and better urban planning -- not less. Personal initiative is great, but it only gets you so far in an age of global warming.

The author attacks urban planners for paternalistic social engineering, but then falls into the same trap, treating New Orleans as a kind of grand libertarian experiment, the the proverbial clean slate in which all social structures are literally washed away and people start fresh. This is a romantic but wrongheaded notion. New Orleans is indeed a grand, improvised experiment. But it does the city and its people a disservice to pat them on the back and say, hey, great job you're doing all on your own -- let's keep it that way.