On Harvey, the Cajun Navy, and Asking the Right Questions

Earlier today I stumbled upon an article in the New Yorker about the Cajun Navy, first made famous for their heroic efforts during the intense flooding in southern Louisiana last year. Much of the national news coverage of the Navy inevitably rises to the level of anthropological study, as though their existence is a puzzle, or somehow surprising. Rednecks, sometimes even with the Confederate Battle Flag emblazoned on their trucks and boats, coming to the rescue of people of all colors. Imagine that.

The New Yorker piece was notable for a different reason, though. It explicitly asked, “Why Does America Need the Cajun Navy?” and unwittingly cut through the layers of nonsense permeating our current national dialogue to fundamental ideological tensions about how we organize ourselves. More specifically, about who or what ought to be our first line of defense in times of crisis.

In the wake of the Great Depression a clear consensus emerged which persists to this day: governments, not individual actors were uniquely positioned to revive communities in the wake of intensely disruptive shocks, or so the story went. But mission creep gradually overtook every New Deal program, and today those programs, many of them intended to be stop-gap measures, have become staples of our modern welfare state, which now encompasses nearly every aspect of our lives: healthcare, family life, and yes, disaster relief.

The ever-increasing demands on government however, coincide with an equally precipitous decline in confidence in our various governments’ ability to satisfy them. I don’t believe this is coincidental. The New Yorker extends the argument a bit further but in a different direction, concluding,

“There is a cyclic pattern to the erosion of faith in government, in which politics saps the state’s capacity to protect people, and so people put their trust in other institutions (churches; self-organizing volunteer navies), and are more inclined to support anti-government politics. The stories of the storm and the navies exist on a libertarian skeleton. Through them, a particular idea of how society might be organized is coming into view.”

This formulation gets the causal arrows about the link between the expansions of state programs and flourishing of intermediary institutions exactly backwards. Let me try to explain why.

Intermediary institutions — not purely individualistic in nature, but nevertheless existing outside of the sphere of government — have made all the difference in the American experiment since the very beginning. They’re what de Tocqueville described with awe during his travels across our young republic, what Burke called “little platoons” of mutual aid and betterment.

It’s true that our modern understanding of welfare reflexively associates aid with the state. Our history is littered with examples of extremely effective communitarian arrangements which provided all manner of social service to their members.

The link between the health of a society’s informal institutions and social capital is difficult to overstate. Repeated positive interactions between families, neighbors, and community members writ large are trust-inducing. This makes intuitive sense. Engaging with those we live near, whether through faith groups, school clubs, sports leagues, and more, give them a reason to trust and value our relationships, infusing a level of cohesion into communities that can’t simply be legislated into existence. This, as Robert Putnam notes in Bowling Alone, is particularly important in multiethnic societies.

What results are symbiotic relationships which when scaled enough affect everything from how litigious we are to how likely we are to lock our keep our doors unlocked. The health of a given society’s intermediary institutions can often serve as a pretty excellent proxy for social trust and cohesion. And while the expansion of governments can mask this fact, trust and cohesion play a major part in if and how a city rebounds in the wake of disasters. Which makes the absorption of traditionally private forms of social insurance into various state programs all the more unfortunate. Attaching the personal to the political has meant that in practice, some of our most personal instiutions, churches, community groups, even families, are fragmenting.

All that said, I’m still wary of the current binary in our political imagination (maybe I’m projecting) about the proper role of formal vs. informal institutions. I don’t personally believe that purely private charity could ever be efficient. But I also don’t believe the opposite is true. The declining confidence in our governments at every level is likely in no small part related to the increased in functions they are expected to perform, with little to no incentive to do so efficiently. And as long as this continues to be true, we should be extremely grateful that community organizations, churches, and yes, groups of outdoorsy rednecks exist to serve the particular needs of the people who depend on them, both in times of crisis and otherwise.

The question then, isn’t “why does the Cajun Navy exist?” but rather, how can we make sure every community has one? As it turns out, that’s a much more difficult question to answer.

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