Katrina and the Tragic Vision

We're used to seeing Jack Bauer save a kidnapped Secretary of Defense, stop multiple nuclear plant meltdowns, and find and destroy a nuclear-tipped missle homing in on LA; moreover, doing all this in a mere 24 hours. And he still has time to mess up his personal life in the slack periods on the same day. So it's little wonder that folks are disappointed with the government's response to Hurricane Katrina.

What I've also been reminded of is Thomas Sowell's great book The Vision of the Anointed, in which he describes the "tragic vision":

In the tragic vision, individual sufferings and social evils are inherent in the innate deficiencies of all human beings, whether those deficiencies are in knowledge, wisdom, morality, or courage. Moreover, the available resources are always inadequate to fulfill all the desires of all the people. Thus there are no "solutions" in the tragic vision, but only trade-offs that still leave many desires unfulfilled and much unhappiness in the world.

This, in short, is the view that accepts screwups and delays as nothing to be shocked about. People fail to forsee problems that are in retrospect "obvious." They don't get the information necessary to make informed decisions, or get incorrect information, or can't sort out relevant and correct information from a deluge of noisy and unreliable facts. They make the wrong decisions, or take too long to make the right ones. Or they remain devoted to their course of action long after reality says they were wrong. They say the wrong things, or fail to realize the perceptions generated from their words, actions, or demeanor. Worse, the magic computers that provide instant and infallible answers to any vital query have yet to show up. Resources (shockingly) turn out to be finite, and not (again, in hindsight) optimally allocated.

And people die.

Not that criticism isn't justified or important, of course. People deserve to be called on the stupid or silly things they've done or said. The tragic vision is not an inpenetrable barrier to constructive criticism or reform.

But what I see is the assumption that all would, or could, have been well under a different band of buffoons. And (of course), nothing but anger, bitterness, and paranoia arise from that worldview. When it could have been OK, the reason it wasn't OK was that the evil and/or stupid people were in charge.

Here's Sowell again, who contrasts the tragic vision with the "vision of the anointed":

The vision of the anointed begins with entirely different premises. Here it is not the innate limitations of human beings, or the inherent limitations of resources, which create unhappiness but the fact that social institutions and social policies are not as wisely crafted as the anointed would have crafted them.

The near unanimous chorus from politicians and media is: government failed. Which is (trivially) true in one sense, totally wrong in another. Governments will always fail, if you operate under the assumption that their duty is to take care of everybody, everyplace, all the time, even under the most catastrophic conditions.

So act accordingly. Even if your vision is "anointed", the smart money says that you should plan as if you were operating under the tragic vision.

By the way, Thomas Sowell's latest column is here.