CHIEF AMONG THE MARVELOUS QUALITIES of liberalism is its ability to see the good in human suffering--and make a good thing of it. How like the early Christians, if the early Christians had been in politics. Hurricane Katrina was a blessing to liberals, a consecrated opportunity to make advocates of small government look small, to enlarge largess with a public dole of private goods, to expand the elemental purview of politics to include earth, water, air, and (with gas at $3) fire, and to shrink the reputation of a despised president. Hurricane Rita, with its sensible actions by state and city officials, orderly evacuations, lack of looting and minimal loss of life, was not a blessing. One's heart went out to liberals, watching their disappointment as Rita failed to destroy Galveston, flood Houston, or wipe Crawford off the map. How can liberals make sure that America never experiences another Rita?
Onward and upward is the maxim of the politically progressive. Liberals need to go straight to the top if they want more Katrina disasters. Where conservatives perceive only molehills of individual responsibility, liberals can make mountains of government accountability. Disasters are fostered by moving the responsibility for things up and away, as far from the things themselves as possible. Look what the Soviet Union's Himalaya of a government was able to do with atomic power at Chernobyl.
To elevate government, add layers of bureaucracy. Bush's creation of the Department of Homeland Security helped ensure FEMA's high-altitude performance--cold, remote, and oxygen-deprived. But FEMA, it must be proudly remembered, was a brainchild of the Carter administration.
The lowly, distant concept of private property ought to be ignored. Recent decisions have made the Supreme Court's position on property rights clear, and liberals need fear no judicial opposition on this point. But what if the New Orleans levees had been owned by the people whose property the levees protected? Rather than supplying proven reserves of liberal outrage, New Orleans would have been a dry hole. What if the New Orleans taxpayers, instead of the nation's taxpayers, had borne the expense of those levees? There would have been no difficulty getting people from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. They would have been there already. And making flood insurance a federal program was a brilliant stroke. That way homeowners didn't apply for it, since federal government services arrive whether requested or not--the Internal Revenue Service, for example.
Speaking of where tax dollars go, criminals and thugs played an important role in the Katrina debacle. Liberals must continue to build a lively and energetic underclass. Fortunately, in New Orleans, welfare reform wasn't working well--people were still on welfare. But the Republican gutting of the welfare system may be causing a dire loss of lumpen proletariat elsewhere in the country. It behooves liberals to remember that the political is the personal. The underclass can be nurtured by encouraging people to lead dissolute personal lives. Those who are too busy balancing the demands of career and child care can give attention and approbation to the dissolute lives of others. Be sure to buy Vanity Fair.
Is the woeful contraction of the underclass to blame for America's precipitous decline in municipal corruption? New Orleans, as Katrina made clear, has escaped this trend, but its effects are painfully evident in New York, Washington, even Baltimore. No really serious long-term effects from a natural disaster can be expected without local wire-pulling, jobbery, and graft. Maybe this is an issue on which liberals can make bipartisan efforts. Supporting a stricter immigration policy would deter the incursions of ambitious, entrepreneurial types into inner cities. Strengthening the No Child Left Behind Act could give middle class urban dwellers better information on public school failures to hasten their exodus to the suburbs. And tougher drug laws might increase drug-dealing profits and the influence of organized crime in municipal affairs.
On a more activist front, it is vital that liberals build their support base in places most prone to the effects of natural disasters, especially in those places where the population is incapable of taking care of itself. The location of Hollywood on a major earthquake fault is an example of this kind of planning at its best. (Note that America's Founders positioned the U.S. capital on a malarial flood plain.) A further possibility would be to move Howard Dean, Al Sharpton, Michael Moore, Hillary Clinton, the headquarters of MoveOn.org, and the principal contributors to EMILY's List into house trailers in Kansas during tornado season.
But bad weather cannot be left simply to do the job on its own. The Sierra Club, Earth First! and other ecology-minded groups have proven it's not true that "everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it." Global warming is a fact. Now it's up to liberals to make it a reality. Hence there is crucial importance in preventing powerful, greedy free market forces from getting in the way of worsening storms and rising sea levels. The Kyoto Accord is a good first step.
If liberals organize and work together to increase public awareness and help voters grow as persons, America can be assured of many future edifying spectacles such as that seen in New Orleans. People were stuck in the mire, they lost everything, they drowned, but liberals took the high ground.
P.J. O'Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author, most recently, of Peace Kills (Atlantic Monthly Press).