Johann Hari: The floods have exposed a washed-up president and his bankrupt philosophy

Could a new American liberalism rise from the fetid waters of New Orleans once again?
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But the events of the past week have been about more than mere administrative incompetence. This isn't Jimmy Carter fumbling and stumbling over how to storm the Tehran embassy; this lets Bush off too easily. This is actually a Winter of Discontent - an event that exposes the flaws in an entire governing philosophy - for Bush's small government conservatism.

I know it seems odd to describe George Bush as following a strict political philosophy. It's hard to imagine him poring over the works of Freidrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. (Indeed, it's hard to imagine him even pronouncing their names.) But both in the years leading up to the floods and in the immediate aftermath, the President has remained glued to a strict ideological script that has - at every step of the way - made the disaster worse.

Bush's political script was put into writing by a right-wing thinker called Marvin Olasky, a man Bush admires so much he wrote a glowing foreword to his book Compassionate Conservatism. Olasky's philosophy is startlingly simple: the American government should do as little as possible. The public sector is invariably inefficient and, worse, morally corrupting. Government spending simply encourages people to become dependent on it, morphing them into greedy subsidy-junkies with no sense of self-reliance. That's why spending on public projects should be whittled down to the bare minimum.

Once this happens, private charity (particularly faith groups) and private business will step into the vacuum and provide all the services government used to pay for, far more efficiently and without the moral hazards. The only role for government is to externally guarantee the country's security, and internally uphold property rights.

Bush has hardly followed this philosophy when it comes to the American rich, who receive lavish and expanding handouts. To name just one, the super-corporation Wal-Mart - invariably touted as a poster-company for small-government conservatism - has received $1bn (£540m) in federal and state subsidies. But he has faithfully followed it when it comes to the poor and to America's public sphere.

This can be seen in the long, ominous run-up to Katrina, where Bush ignored warnings about public safety in New Orleans in favour of his ideological script: cut, cut, cut the public sphere. Elected representatives for Louisiana had been scrambling for extra cash for New Orleans' flood defences for years, citing dozens of reports that warned a hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the top three threats to America's security. But they were arguing for a Big Government project with no immediate corporate beneficiaries - the very antithesis of the Bush philosophy. So instead of receiving extra cash, the Army Corps of Engineers' budget for levee construction in New Orleans received a 44 per cent cut in its funding.

Meanwhile, there was another "bloated" part of the government "bureaucracy" Bush decided to hacksaw down to pay for his $200bn tax cuts for the rich. It's called the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema), and it is the organisation designed to respond to disasters on the continental United States. He announced that key parts of Fema were to be broken off and sold to the private sector. "Many are concerned that federal disaster assistance may have evolved into an oversized entitlement programme..." his spokesman announced in pure Olasky-speak.

Even when the hurricane was just 24 hours away, Bush did not deviate from his dogmas: the evacuation procedure was, in effect, privatised. The city's people were simply told over the radio to leave, with no government assistance. Nothing was done to help the 150,000 people too broke to leave on their own - it would, presumably, have been "morally corrupting".

And when the waters levelled the Big Easy, Bush did not waver. The protection of property rights was his first, second and third priority. Looting was seen as a greater risk than rising waters, incipient disease, and hunger in the refugee Superdome. The sight of troops diverted from search-and-rescue missions to prevent thirsty, hungry people breaking into convenience stores should stand forever as a symbol of a small government conservatism that puts property before people.

Bush's second response was just as ideological: to appeal to private charity. At a time when people were looking to the government to provide urgent and overwhelming assistance, the President suggested giving money to charities in the region. (And not just any charities - the Fema website Bush directed them to originally linked to the Red Cross and the far-right evangelist Pat Robertson's "Operation Blessing".) It was only a massive public outcry that forced Bush to send in a much bigger rescue operation, days too late.

A limp, passive government serving only corporate interests cannot solve problems, whether it is a hurricane or the slow-motion crises of American poverty or chaos in Iraq. So could a natural disaster reveal this and jolt Americans out of their thirty-year long slide into small government conservatism?

It has happened before. In 1927, the banks of the Mississippi River burst, and over a thousand people - mostly broke black people - drowned. President Calvin Coolidge showed near-total indifference to the disaster in New Orleans. The American people were shocked to discover that the government was leaving the rescue operation to groups like the Red Cross, and not paying a cent towards housing and feeding the refugees.

The historian John Barry believes it was the mass popular demands for the government to do far more in the wake of the '27 floods - to stop lounging back in the face of poverty and chaos in America - that killed early 20th- century small government conservatism. The expansion of government and taxation that year set in train a momentum, he argues, towards the golden age of American liberalism: FDR and the New Deal. Could a new American liberalism arise from the fetid waters of New Orleans once again?

In 2001, George Bush's friend and adviser Grover Norquist said the American conservative movement's aim was to cut government "down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub". It turns out that, in New Orleans, the bathtub was full of people - and it may just be George Bush and his political philosophy that drowned.