Friday, July 20, 2007

A Right to the Land: Who Has it, and Why

My mom recalled an interesting airport conversation to me recently. Held over in Dallas, she was making small talk with a woman from Oklahoma when she mentioned she was from Louisiana. This naturally led the conversation to discussing Katrina, its aftershock, what should be done to rebuild the city, etc. My mom is of the opinion that it is rather non-sensical to try to recreate New Orleans just as it was, i.e., put people back in harm’s way. After all, the city is still sinking, the levies can hardly be trusted, and the Mississippi River is still washing away valuable sediment it had deposited for centuries during flood season before the Corps of Engineers put in dams. But this opinion was met with a rather harsh rebuttal. The claim from the conversation partner was that those who were displaced had a right to the land, that the 9th ward, for example, should be rebuilt as it was, and those who had moved out should be moved back in.

Undoubtedly these are the two poles that encompass the thinking about rebuilding New Orleans. This has brought up several philosophical questions for me. Who has a right to any land? How did they get such a right? Are there times in which cultural forces trump traditional understandings of private property, land allocation, etc.? My view tends to be that if New Orleans is to be rebuilt, several things need to happen first.
1. The coast needs to be replenished with soil; let the Mississippi naturally flood the region to provide some barrier for future hurricanes. Yes, this will take many decades, but the sooner we start, the better.
2. Get rid of incentives that encourage systemic poverty and reliance on government bailouts. We saw what happens when passive reliance on government meets inept and uncaring government agencies.
3. Be corporate friendly. Louisiana notoriously has an out-migration problem and only 1 Fortune 500 company in the state. Follow the lead of other southern cities and become manufacturing/technologically friendly. There are loads of auto-manufacturers along I-20 and Austin has become a mini-Silicon Valley. New Orleans has decided to rely on its history and sleaziness alone for tourism dollars. It’s time to be forward thinking and let the great historical/cultural background be just that, the background.

So what to do with all the displaced? Don’t they have a right to return home? The argument heard by my mom was as follows: Because most of the folks in the 9th ward were displaced to begin with (brought from Africa as slaves), they deserved to be resettled (at government expense) to the land that was taken from them. There was no property claims as such, as much as cultural pleas. Because cultural ties to the land were all these people had (their music, food and community) they had the right, even a moral foundation for resettling the land.

But who is to say anyone had a right to that land, even if their culture was alive and well there? While no one enjoys being displaced, what exactly in the course of history tells us that any ethnic group has a right to any land? With the rare exception of the Jews (who, according to scripture, were promised land by God, and historically did, in fact, settle the land, through conquest or slow agricultural/social hegemony), I can think of virtually no clan of people who didn’t move, or weren’t threatened with the prospect of moving because of natural/military forces. Even Native Americans, whose suffering was real and well-documented, were overcome, rightly or wrongly, by superior military forces, disease and political deception. But as wrong as this was, we would be remiss if we thought of it as new in the history of human colonization. It’s as old as the land itself. So whereas the Jews seem to have an unusual claim on the Land, especially post-WWII, I can think of no other group that has such protection.

Our only real claim to land then is as individuals, and it is only protected in the historically rare combination of effective rule of law and the protection of private property. I haven’t written an article in many weeks because I have been in the middle of move. My wife and I purchased our first home, and I have to say, cliché as it may be, I’ve never loved America so much. The idea that financial institutions were competing to help me own a piece of the world that basically no one can take from me was surreal. I hope I never take the ability to own private property for granted. (Of course I know that these financial institutions will make a mint off of me, but hey, it’s a tax write-off, and they’re taking an enormous risk giving me a lot of money.)

And ultimately, I think this has instructed me on what to think of re-building New Orleans. Let the market decide if it is worth re-building, not faux moral imperatives that dictate past residents there have the right to resettle there. Businesses and corporations are in better places to discern if New Orleans will be profitable city with a high standard of living because they stand to profit from it. The land shouldn’t be re-settled by past inhabitants just to try to “make things right.” It might make us feel good, but there is not necessarily a moral imperative to do so, and if it is economically infeasible, why make the same mistake twice?

For a wonderfully comprehensive take on the rebuilding of New Orleans, go here.

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