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.