“The Authorities” don’t have much faith in people. They never really have.
Before 9/11, it was the official view of “the authorities” that if a major disaster were to unfold in a Manhattan skyscraper, it’d be best to tell the people in the building to stay put and await instructions. They simply couldn’t be trusted to look out for themselves; without the firm, teutonic voice of authority, they’d rip each other to shreds trying to get through the door into the stairwell.
To the authorities, people are mindless panicky cattle.
Of course, on 9/11 the people disregarded the orders to stay put on the overhead speakers, and organized themselves and got themselves and their handicapped colleagues out of the building. Almost nobody below the impact point died in the Towers that day.
And without ignoring the panics that have ˆhappened, it’d be myopic to ignore the many times officialdom – “the authorities” – panicked first and loudest. The behavior of the people in charge of the lifeboats on the Titanic was one notable example.
The fact is, people usually – not always, usually – see to their self-preservation pretty well; since the group they are part of is often an integral part of that self-preservation, groups of everyday schnooks tend to self-organize modestly well, as well.
The best thing “authorities” can do, often, is provide useful, factual information, provide a framework for that self-organization, while seeing to the things the average schnook can’t feasiibly do; get supplies expedited, get expertise to where it’s needed and the like.
But “authorities” and “experts” have a disturbing tendency, even if they don’t panic and cause more harm than good, to go full-bore Dwight Schrute. To treat their expert status as a license to flex their power. To treat information as power – and act like they’ve got both, and know it.
I commend do you this excellent piece on “Elite Panic” – the tendency of the “authorities” to behave exactly as they fear citizens will – is a real, destructive phenomenon. And it kills people.
In this case, victims of the 1964 Anchorage Earthquake, the worst in America in modern times:
For the police, fear of public chaos outweighed, at least temporarily, concern for possible victims. Before dispatching those casually deputized citizens to keep order in the streets, the Anchorage police chief suspended the search for survivors in damaged buildings. “Arguably, the city was protecting its ruins from looters more conscientiously than it was looking for people trapped in them,” Mooallem writes.
Disaster researchers call this phenomenon “elite panic.” When authorities believe their own citizens will become dangerous, they begin to focus on controlling the public, rather than on addressing the disaster itself. They clamp down on information, restrict freedom of movement, and devote unnecessary energy to enforcing laws they assume are about to be broken. These strategies don’t just waste resources, one study notes; they also “undermine the public’s capacity for resilient behaviors.” In other words, nervous officials can actively impede the ordinary people trying to help themselves and their neighbors.
That’s exactly the phenomenon behind “Berg’s Third Law of Human Resilience” – the “authorities” never give human survivors of catastrophes enough credit. Never.
And that’s just panic, misplaced priorities and incompetence. Sometimes, outright depravity sets in:
Elite panic frequently brings out another unsavory quirk on the part of some authorities: a tendency to believe the worst about their own citizens. In the midst of the Hurricane Katrina crisis in 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin found time to go on Oprah Winfrey’s show and lament “hooligans killing people, raping people” in the Superdome. Public officials and the media credulously repeated rumors about street violence, snipers shooting at helicopters, and hundreds of bodies piled in the Superdome. These all turned out to be wild exaggerations or falsehoods (arguably tinged by racism). But the stories had an impact: Away from the media’s cameras, a massive rescue effort—made up of freelance volunteers, Coast Guard helicopters, and other first responders—was underway across the city. But city officials, fearing attacks on the rescuers, frequently delayed these operations. They ordered that precious space in boats and helicopters be reserved for armed escorts.
And whatever your view of government – from DFLer to Libertarian – you’d think getting reliable information to the people would be a priority:
Too often, the need to “avoid panic” serves as a retroactive justification for all manner of official missteps. In late March, as the coronavirus pandemic was climbing toward its crest in New York City, Mayor Bill De Blasio appeared on CNN’s State of the Union to defend his record. Host Jake Tapper pressed the mayor on his many statements—as recently as two weeks earlier—urging New Yorkers to “go about their lives.” Tapper asked whether those statements were “at least in part to blame for how the virus has spread across the city.” De Blasio didn’t give an inch. “Everybody was working with the information we had,” he explained, “and trying, of course, to avoid panic.” How advising people to avoid bars and Broadway shows would have been tantamount to panic was left unexplained.
Authorities only deserve the respect they earn.