Letters Fom Nowhere

Premodernist Life in Postapocalyptic New Orleans

Monday, December 12, 2005

The Libertarian's Dilemma

"Hypocrisy is the tribute which vice pays to virtue."
-Francois de La Rochefoucauld

I have received aout $4300 from the federal government in the form of FEMA grants. In addition, I receive $90/week from the state of Louisiana for "disaster unemployment." The question is: Should a libertarian opposed to most all of the government's post-New Deal spending and scope of power accept this money? If so, under what circumstances and by what justification?

The indictment is compelling: You spend countless conversations trying to convince your friends that the government's only responsibility beyond national defense ought only to be to protect an individual from force or fraud. When someone objects that some entitlement spending is necessary because there are times when people are in need through little fault of their own, you reply that this ought to be the purview of private charity. Implicit in your condemnation of forced income redistribution, is the suggestion that to accept the largess of the government is to be an accessory to robbery. How then is it anything but pure hypocrisy to accept $5000 of money that others worked to earn, especially in light of the fact that this sum is more than you would have normally earned had there been no weather interruption?

My defense goes something like this: I do think a libertarian political system would be more efficient and moral. However, I am born into a unjust system that I am relatively powerless to change (please, no bullshit earnest responses here- let's just accept this sentence as axiomatic). This system requires me to make choices that weigh my principles against my personal happiness. Sometimes the marginal increase in my own comfort fairly outweighs the marginal harm done to others in acting against my principles.

An example: Say I lived in New York City, making about $300/wk working in a used bookstore near Tompkins Sq. In looking for a place to live, I come across a rent controlled apartment right on St Mark's. It's only a studio and it still costs $650/mnth, but my best alternative is a share in Williamsburgh that will cost me close to grand every month (not to mention the attendant perils of living amongst swarms of STD-carrying hipsters). Now, I think it is evident that rent control tends to cause often severe housing shortages, as well as inflated prices outside of the controlled sector. Moreover, I find the practice a morally opprobrious infringement on property rights. Nonetheless, I would sign the lease on the rent controlled apartment without hesitation (indeed, with excitement). Wouldn't you?

Now, there is a line to be crossed somewhere here- I don't know exactly where that is. I am not going to stop using the Post Office, walking on sidewalks, driving on interstates, and flying from airports because these things are provided for by the government. But I'm not going to profit by turning in a drug dealer for a reward. It may be that in my particular case I am on the wrong side of this line because I am diverting precious resources from where they are more needed, but I'm not sure that this even factually accurate.

In any case, comments, constructive criticism, and outright insults are appreciated...

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Last week I got a second hand invite (via Seaborg Award winning historian, Mike Ross) to Will's birthday party. The party was notable for a couple of reasons. The first is that Will's friend, Dave English, was cooking the meal. Dave was the chef at Cobalt- one of New Orleans better restaurants- located in the Hotel Monaco. One of my best and most bittersweet New Orleans memories is from the Hotel Monaco.

My dear friend, GK Darby, who loves this city and belongs here, had decided to leave the city he loves and belongs in for Philadelphia, a city only a delusional mongrel could abide. As it happens, GK was severely mistreated by a woman, and his battered soul needed a needed a city that reflected its callous abandonment. GK's survival instinct told him that Trenton was just too extreme, so he settled for the closest semblance of civilization and packed his bags for Philly. He had won a night at Monaco in a charity auction, and decided to have his going away party there in room 804.

Jordan and I arrived fashoinably late to those grim proceedings and found a scene of halcyon depravity straight out of a Michel Houellebecq novel. The swanky room was littered with bottles half filled with every kind of fermented and distilled swill. Our friends were scattered about- on the leather couches, on the mosquito-netted bed, on the floor- glass-eyed and with little to say, listening to a bad and disorienting mix of The Magnetic Fields, NWA, and halting second line dirges. GK seemed uncomfortable. Two of our friends were playing out their romantic seperation in front of everyone else. I brought the only cocaine to the party, but no one was interested.

Under some pretense of order, cigarettes were confined to the bathroom. So, when I went to take a piss I had to feel my way through the haze, past the whirlpool bathtub filled with smokers, stepping around the ashtrays to the toilet. I relieved myself, took off my shoes, lit up a Pall Mall, and joined the others soaking their feet in the tub and inhaling the opaque aimlessness in the air. We drank enough to enjoy the night, and GK was gone in the morning. Now's he's just one of about 400,000 refugees.

We fethisize the past and mourn the future.

Which brings us back to Will's birthday party. Like I said Dave English was working the dinner. The Hotel Monaco and Cobalt are now permanently closed, and Dave is currently taking his time deciding between offers from other fine restaurants in town (I won't name them, as I don't wish for this to become a society gossip page). In the meantime, we were treated to prime rib with horseradish sauce, creamed cauliflower with baked brie, and asparagus with bacon and grilled onions prepared by one of the best chefs in the New Orleans- such are the benefits of living in a provincial city.

Will had no home to return to after Katrina- his house on Broad St. was flooded. He found an apartment in the newly constructed River Garden Apartments off of Tchoupitoulas. Only a couple of years ago, this area was the St. Thomas housing project. The City tore down the crime-ridden projects, and put up a Walmart and a mixed-housing neighborhood dubbed The River Garden. As much of New Orleans faux-Orlianean neighborhood might soon be rebuilt in this fashion, Will's party was a chance to assess the prospects for New Orleans' asthetic future.

The River Garden is the archtype of the"New Urbanism" which has somehow become the default concept for rebuiling New Orleans. Whatever else it may be, The River Garden is a soulless collection of faux-Orleanian architecture, suburban spacing, and suspiciously well groomed lawns. Inside, the wall-to-wall carpeting and cookie cutter apartments speak more of condos in Cleveland than of an historic town that has developed over two centuries. Indeed, the very idea that any commission (even the Wexler Recovery Commission) can impose a monolithic, top-down template that is somehow faithful to such a long and haphazard history offends both one's intuition and intellect.

It's strange living along the river in New Orleans these days. Our neighborhoods- the Irish Channel, the CBD, the Marigny, the Quarter- make up a vital bubble in an otherwise sepulchral city. You can spend every day in these neighborhoods (as I do) and forget that if you walked 10 or 15 blocks north you'd be wandering into a graveyard of empty darkness with a moldy film still covering the abandoned cars and houses.

I realize that these neighborhoods cannot be ignored, for the sake of its residents and the rest of New Orleans. I'm just not ready to live in Charlotte, NC. How 'bout this? Instead of handing a check to some planning commission that is going to impose a uniform template on the city, what say we divvy up that money and cut a check to each individual who lived in that neighborhood. Then each indivdual decides when, where, how, and if to rebuild. Comments welcome...