The Mandate of Heaven, Revoked | Harper's Magazine

Sign in to access Harper’s Magazine

Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?

  1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
  2. Select Email/Password Information.
  3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.

Locked out of your account? Get help here.

Subscribers can find additional help here.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!

Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
Subscribe for Full Access
Get Access to Print and Digital for $23.99.
[No Comment]

The Mandate of Heaven, Revoked


As we come to the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster, we have an appropriate time to remember that assistance to the populace in times of natural disaster is an absolute, essential responsibility of government. Indeed, that view is enthusiastically embraced even by the most conservative and libertarian notions of the minimized role of the state. Consider Friedrich von Hayek’s words in The Road from Serfdom:

Nor is there any reason why the state should not assist the individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance…

To the same category belongs also the increase of security through the state’s rendering assistance to the victims of such “acts of God” as earthquakes and floods. Wherever communal action can mitigate disasters against which the individual can neither attempt to guard himself nor make provision for the consequences, such communal action should undoubtedly be taken.

The question of relief from the effects of a hurricane, like the one that struck New Orleans with such devastation, does not belong within the framework of political debate. The obligation of the state to provide protection and render relief was absolute. The failure was staggering. The failure continues up to this date.

The historian Toynbee reminds us that times of war have from the dawn of human society provided a fertile grounds for corruption. Humans being humans and seeking always to enrich themselves exploit such opportunities, and the dangers are always greatest among those with political power to use it to help their friends and line their own pockets. And the problems are similar in time of natural disaster, when contracts are formed quickly and under great time pressure, without the time to allow competitive bids.

In theory, FEMA was supposed to avert this problem by lining up contractors well in advance, through a pre-approval process. But what transpired in the Katrina process seems a perfect domestic adjunct to what transpired in Iraq: waste, fraud and abuse at levels that have few if any historical parallels. This points to a widespread systems failure, with plenty of responsibility to be spread between governments at all levels, and state legislatures and Congress, which should have functioned as oversight mechanisms and so far have rather spectacularly underperformed.

The New Orleans Times Picayune has an editorial today that makes the case for mismanagement very pointedly. It’s formed as an open letter to President Bush. And the opening words are “treat us fairly, Mr. President”:

Despite massive destruction caused by the failure of the federal government’s levees during Katrina, despite the torment caused by FEMA’s slow response to the disaster, despite being hit by a second powerful hurricane less than a month later, Louisiana has had to plead to be treated fairly by our leaders in Washington. President Bush and Congress have sent us billions in aid — from $10.4 billion in grants for housing and infrastructure to $95 million for higher education to $168 million in business tax credits.

This community is grateful for the help. But Louisiana’s losses were dramatically higher than any other state’s and thus deserving of greater compensation. In reality, Mississippi has gotten a larger share of federal aid.

Yes, why exactly was the recovery money so disproportionately funneled to Mississippi? Might it, perhaps, have to do with the governor of Mississippi, former Republic National Committee chair Haley Barbour? Was he doing a good job for Mississippi, or was he doing a good job for Haley Barbour?

In any event, Haley Barbour played an impressively influential role throughout this process. About six months after Katrina, I was at a dinner party with a recently resigned Homeland Security official who told me that there were enormous corruption issues surrounding the contracting process. He said he what he had seen was so disconcerting and the attitude of his boss (who now figures as a candidate to be attorney general) was so permissive, he had decided to leave rather than be tarred with it. One name figured in that discussion: Haley Barbour. More recently, I have been dealing with some professionals down in the southeast who deal regularly with FEMA for contractors. “Word was, if you wanted work, you had to see one of Barbour’s nephews or Joe Allbaugh—they really run the show.” How could that be?

Timothy Burger at Bloomberg has been digging very deep into Barbour’s remarkable good fortune in the government contracts area.

Many Mississippians have benefited from Governor Haley Barbour’s efforts to rebuild the state’s devastated Gulf Coast in the two years since Hurricane Katrina. The $15 billion or more in federal aid the former Republican national chairman attracted has reopened casinos and helped residents move to new or repaired homes.

Among the beneficiaries are Barbour’s own family and friends, who have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars from hurricane-related business. A nephew, one of two who are lobbyists, saw his fees more than double in the year after his uncle appointed him to a special reconstruction panel. Federal Bureau of Investigation agents in June raided a company owned by the wife of a third nephew, which maintained federal emergency-management trailers.

Meanwhile, the governor’s own former lobbying firm, which he says is still making payments to him, has represented at least four clients with business linked to the recovery.

And Burger has another piece out today showing how Governor Barbour is able to continue all of this from his position of public trust in the Mississippi statehouse. Evidently he has a “blind trust” arrangement that must have been constructed along the lines of Senator Frist’s from next door in Tennessee.

Over at the Daily Dish, Steve Clemons, filling in for Andrew Sullivan, points to Burger’s two articles and forms a recommendation: “Impeach Hailey Barbour,” he argues.

Barbour, whether as Chairman of the Republican National Committee; Chairman of the National Policy Forum; Chairman and Proprietor of the lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers; or now Governor of Mississippi, has demonstrated obsessive disregard for the line between public ethics and private gain. Mississippians should impeach him because he’s undermined the interests of their state — and many around the country should help. Iraq is an ongoing tragedy — but so is Katrina. Impeaching Haley Barbour could start a healthy trend.

The situation needs to be exposed and remedial action needs to be taken, but let’s consider the “systems failure” here. How could Barbour and his extended family get away with all of this, unchecked and unexposed, for so long? With due credit to Bloomberg’s Burger, who is doing solid work, this persisted a long time, and escaped detection from the responsible oversight bodies—in Jackson and Washington. That also requires some thought.

Yes, there is plenty of blame to spread around. But in the end of the day, I take the Chinese viewpoint.

The Chinese philosopher Meng Zi (??, Mencius) in the fourth century before the common era (the Warring States Period in Chinese history) laid great importance on the Government’s role in dealing with floods and natural disasters. The ruler had a right to the obedience of his subjects because he held the mandate of heaven, Meng Zi said. But this mandate could only be held by one who knows the moral order of the universe, actually observes it and thus is a worthy ruler. Otherwise one has no business, and no right, being in power. And the person purporting to hold the mandate of heaven is also subject to the “judgment of history.” In particular, he has a duty to protect his people from the assaults of other states, but particularly from the ravages of nature manifested in flooding. If the levees failed, and the fields and cities are flooded, disaster and famine ensued. Then, in Meng Zi’s view, the mandate of heaven was revoked. It was time to search out a new leader. But more than this, it meant that heaven’s judgment had fallen: the leader was a fraud. He never actually held the mandate of heaven in the first place.

Meng Zi would look upon the experience of Hurricane Katrina and would draw clear and devastating conclusions for President Bush. Some may think this superstitious. But I’ll put myself in the camp holding out for the value of ancient wisdom.

More from