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September 02, 2005

why there is looting in New Orleans

I'm quoted in a Baltimore Sun article on that topic today: "Behavior of stressed disaster survivors draws eyes of experts," by Linell Smith. Inevitably, only a snippet of what I said found its way into the story. My blog allows me to state my full view.

Stealing other people's property is wrong. But it is happening on a large scale in New Orleans, because ...

1. Some people are stealing to feed themselves and their children. That is such a strong excuse that it usually cancels the fault. Whether people who steal under such circumstances should even feel regret is a subtle question. A mitigating factor like this is also an explanatory factor: severe need simply causes people to loot.

2. Some people have looted property that was about to be destroyed anyway by the rising water. That doesn't mean that they have a moral right to keep the goods for themselves. But it is both a mitigating and an explanatory factor.

3. People are more likely to steal when other people are stealing as well. If you are the only one committing blatant theft, then you will probably get in trouble. But if everyone else is stealing, then you won't pay a penalty for joining in, and that certainly makes theft more tempting. Besides, if the property is about to be stolen by others, then you will make no difference by taking it yourself. (It's like the situation in which property is about to be destroyed by water; see above). This excuse doesn't justify theft. You should do what is right, not what everyone else is doing. But I believe it's a mitigating factor because the temptation to steal is greater when it's what everyone else is doing.

When I was in college in New Haven, I was waiting one evening on a long line at a convenience store. The lights went out--only in the store, as I recall. You could still see perfectly well. Nevertheless, most people on line took what they had been waiting to purchase, plus a few extra items from nearby shelves, and walked right out. The loss of electric light was a signal that the law was gone: other people were about to steal, so most people joined in. (For enthusiasts of rational-choice theory, this was a Prisoner's Dilemma, and the darkness transmitted a message that enabled people to "cooperate" by looting.)

4. New Orleans may have a weak civic culture, manifested in low levels of trust for other citizens and for institutions. I doubt that many cities could avoid looting under the current circumstances--this must be the worst US natural disaster since San Francisco in 1906. But I do think that a strong civic culture helps when the veneer of civilization is removed, and a weak one hurts. In New York City, the 1965 power failure "was largely characterized by cooperation and good cheer," the blackout in 1977 was "defined by widespread looting and arson," and the latest one in 2003 was again peaceful (sources). These changes track the decline and then the recovery of trust and civility in New York City.

I can't prove that New Orleans has low trust and deep social divisions. The Social Capital Benchmark Survey collected data from Baton Rouge (which scored pretty well), but not the Big Easy. However, New Orleans, for all its charms, has a reputation for high crime, racial division and exclusion, corrupt and violent police, and poorly performing schools. Those problems tend to accompany low trust; and a lack of trust makes people less likely to cooperate when the law disappears.

Posted by peterlevine at September 2, 2005 07:15 AM


"When I was in college in New Haven, I was waiting one evening on a long line at a convenience store."

You must be from New York, eh?

Posted by: Nick Beaudrot [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 2, 2005 11:50 AM

Emily Hoban Kirby (from CIRCLE) sent me the following response by email, and then gave me permission to post it. I think I was jumping to conclusions about New Orleans, and I'm really grateful for Emily's perspective. She writes:

"I've been reading your blog on NOLA and the level of social trust in the city. I know there's not much data on this topic, but based on my experience down there I do think there's a level of social trust in some NOLA communities that you don't see in a lot of modern American cities. As
you may know I did a home rehab project in NOLA when I was with AmeriCorps and the sociologist in me has been fascinated by the city ever since.

"My work with AmeriCorps was based out of a neighborhood in the 9th ward called Treme. It is a very economically poor area but full of a rich history. Anyway, I've always had the impression that NOLA has an interesting civic culture. To this day, they still have mutual benefit societies. These societies started in the African American community as basically insurance companies for funeral expenses. People pulled their money together so that when one member of the community had a hardship the group could help out financially. NOLA is the only American city I've heard of where these societies still exist. We saw one of these clubs perform at jazz fest. For more see
this article or
this one (scroll down to Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs). To me it seems that these are the kind of clubs that Putnam argues are so important for a strong civic culture.

"I'm certainly not arguing that NOLA has not had its fair share of corruption. From Huey Long to the NOPD there has been a long history of political corruption in the city. However, I do think the people of NOLA band together in a way you don't see in many modern American cities. Of
course my experience is with just a small segment of the city..."

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at September 9, 2005 09:18 PM

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