Friday, January 14, 2005

Column on Governments and Disasters

Disasters and Governments

Tibor R. Machan

I have resisted writing about tsunami because, well, it is such a
horrible catastrophe that it seemed tacky to rush in a write about it.
Now, closer to home, we have the much smaller scale but to some people no
less disastrous events of the recent heavy rains in Southern California.

One of my colleagues sent me a post this time saying, Â?You might consider
doing a column on the recent mudslides in La Conchita [Ventura County]
that appear to have taken as many as 20 lives--three children.Â? He want on
to observe that Â?Authorities pleaded with people to leave, citing the
imminent threat posed by the mountain, which had slid several times
before. They chose to stay.Â?

In light of this, my colleague asks, Â?What is the proper balance between
a paternalistic state and individual liberty? Does the State have a
responsibility to warn peopleÂ?if that?Â?as many people feel it failed to do
in Indonesia? Or should it literally remove people from their homesÂ?as
they did in Florida prior to the Hurricane and forbade them from returning
until it was Â?safe.Â? Similarly, the Coast Guard has a right to move people
from their boats if they feel the crafts are unsafe. I know where you will
come down, but I think it worthy of comment, because the theme cuts across
so many public policy areas (seat belts, smoking, motorcycle helmet
laws)Â?as you well know.Â?

Let me get to the principle at issue first. In a free society it isnÂ?t
the role of government to get involved in such matters. Governments have
as their task to secure our rights and whatever needs to be done to do
this properly. As to disaster aversion, warning or relief, there should
and probably would be private alert groups, subscribed to by businesses
and individuals, not much different from how people buy insurance even
when they do not get to use it. Or how they buy security systems for their
homes and cars. The task of government is to keep the peace, etc., not to
solve our problems with rain, earthquake and such.

Of course, this is a Â?best world scenario,Â? which isn't likely to emerge
since people are too willing to fall prey to the temptation to take short
cuts, to try to make use of governmentsÂ? strong arm methods to address
problems, even if this means dragging others in and burdening them with
the costs.

All too many folks who purchase homes in high risk areas expect to be
bailed out not by their own expensive insuranceÂ?which might then
discourage them to buy thereÂ?but by government enforced
wealth-redistribution methods. (One bloke on the Los Angeles CBS all news
radio station, KNX, a member of their staff, who lost everything in La
Conchita, admitted that he knew the risks but had hopes that he could
dodge them!)

In our world, where so many millions of people relinquish their
responsibility for their own actions and lives, leaving it to
othersÂ?bureaucrats, politicians, police, the Coast Guard, etc.Â?to bail
them out, all one can do is hope that some of these disasters, which
governments simply cannot prevent and from which governments cannot rescue
people, will teach some hard lessons that will in time be utilized.

Even the tsunami catastrophe appears to have been preventable, had the
benefits of modern technology been put to proper use. There are in the
Pacific Ocean ample preparations afoot for just such disasters but they
were not deployed in the Indian Ocean. Nor were communication networks in
place to alert people in the various coastal regions when, in fact, just a
bit of warning, once the tsunami commenced, could have prevented the death
of thousands.

Where the idea of individual responsibility more firmly ingrained in the
minds of people around the globe, and proper sanctions in place when such
responsibilities are neglectedÂ?when homes are badly built, on infirm
grounds, or resorts badly secured against impending natural
calamitiesÂ?many of the horrors we have been witnessing of late would
probably have been averted. Instead, things are left to be dealt with by
othersÂ?by people in government who are no miracle makers and whose
attention is by no means focused on othersÂ? interests.

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