While the national media has largely ignored the historic flooding in southern Louisiana, the response of community members has been overwhelming. As the water rose to unprecedented levels men from the area around Baton Rouge and Denham Springs set off in boats down flooded roadways looking for persons in need. Others began volunteering at shelters, cooking food for shelters, and offering their homes to neighbors and sometimes to complete strangers.
My parents and brother were rescued from the second story of a flooded house after two days by a neighbor with a boat.
Rod Dreher has noted the links between the Benedict Option and the response of members of the various communities affected by flooding in Louisiana. While Dreher has often highlighted the importance of the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981) as an inspiration for the Benedict Option, what has been ignored — and what is missing in general in discussions of the Benedict Option — is MacIntyre’s more developed account of the nature of flourishing communities in his lesser known book Dependent Rational Animals (1999). In this later book MacIntyre describes virtuous communities that are constituted by gratuitous, local networks of giving and receiving. This account is aptly illustrated by the communal response to the flooding in south Louisiana.
What MacIntyre describes in Dependent Rational Animals is a relationship much subtler than what could exist between a new St. Benedict and the decadent Roman Empire. He envisions relationships that exist between friends, family, and total strangers, that are active in a more subtle way in daily life but which are most apparent in strong communities when disaster strikes. In Baton Rouge and Denham Springs, total strangers gave of their time and resources, sometimes putting their own lives at risk, to help those in need. And in similar communities around the world, on a daily basis communal bonds are evidenced by the way in which fellow community members give assistance to those in need in a manner that extends beyond economic calculations. This type of virtuous care is vital to the well-being of community members, yet it often goes unnoticed.
MacIntyre argues that as human beings we are always vulnerable to threats that make flourishing precarious and that we can only really flourish by relying on the virtuous care of friends, family, and often total strangers to give to us when we are in need. The response to the recent floods gives ample evidence of the strength of of virtuous networks spanning the communities of southern Louisiana. But maybe not surprisingly, the localism of the relatively rural population of southern Louisiana also offers an example of the parochialism and “irrationality” derided by elites in the wake of the Brexit vote. While economic models can largely capture increased economic efficiency stemming from globalization, economists struggle to explain the type of widespread cooperation, apparent in southern Louisiana, and described by MacIntyre in terms of networks of giving and receiving.
Mainstream economist often dismiss the type of virtuous behavior on display in southern Louisiana as irrational, or attempt to reduce it to some sort of utilitarian calculation, as if members of the “Cajun Navy” were tacitly performing cost/benefit analyses each time they came across someone in distress. MacIntyre argues that the economic theory is unable to account for the role of genuinely common goods that transcend the distinction between egoism and altruism. The failure of economic theory to explain the virtuous behavior exemplified in the wake of the floods in Louisiana is directly related to the bankruptcy of political discourse in the United States and Europe.
What many pundits, economists, and gleeful proponents of globalization fail to understand is that relationships of gratuitous giving and receiving that form the basis of virtuous communities are often threatened by disintegration and marginalization as a result of globalizing economic policies. These virtuous relationships and personal bonds are required for local communities to subsist and for individuals to flourishing, especially when they are in need. MacIntyre, in Dependent Rational Animals, points to threats to communal integrity stemming from consumerism and reduced job stability, both making virtuous relationships, and therefore actual human flourishing, more precarious.
In the wake of the recent flood, Rod Dreher notes that he is primarily concerned with “the politics of building local community, and local community institutions.” His critics have dismissed the Benedict Option as a form of political quietism that ignores mainstream politics, but as MacIntyre argues, a politics centered on supporting and strengthening virtuous communal ties is neither quietist nor isolated from national and international politics. Instead, this type of political approach explicitly acknowledges the importance of strong local communities, in both daily life and during extraordinary challenges, recognizing that communal ties provide resilience in a manner that is often ignored by economic models. A politics of the common good centered upon local communities asks how national and international political institutions can be made to support the common good of local communities, as they did when Coast Guard helicopters aided stranded residents and FEMA announced programs providing financial assistance to property owners without flood insurance.
Discussions of economic policy must be conducted in a manner that acknowledges the purpose of economics as a means of providing resources to support and sustain local community relationships. Local communities are at times parochial but, as the historic flooding in southern Louisiana makes evident, such communities are often the source of virtuous networks of giving and receiving that provide unique care to those in urgent need. As even the Nobel Economist Vernon Smith notes, "[T]he rules of impersonal market exchange may be applied insensitively to our cohesive social networks and crush viable interpersonal exchange systems based on mutual trust."
Our discourse about national and international politics, like our discussions of economics, is severely impoverished if we fail to consider the way in which policy decisions impact virtuous relationships constitutive of our local communities. Far from a secondary concern, national and international political and economic policies must be understood primarily in terms of the way in which they support or marginalize local networks of giving and receiving.
Caleb Bernacchio, a native of Baton Rouge, LA, is a PhD candidate at IESE Business School in Barcelona. He previously earned an MBA from LSU.