Government cannot prevent disasters

By Tibor Machan

I have resisted writing about the tsunami because, well, it is such a horrible catastrophe that it seemed tacky to rush out a column about it. Now, closer to my home, we have a much smaller but no less disastrous event of a killer mudslide caused by recent heavy rains in Southern California.
One of my colleagues sent me a post saying, “You might consider doing a column on the recent mudslides in La Conchita (Ventura County, California) …”

The mudslide killed at least 10 people and destroyed at least 15 homes. My colleague pointed out that “authorities pleaded with people to leave, citing the imminent threat posed by the mountain, which had slid several times before. They chose to stay.”

In light of this, my colleague asks, “What is the proper balance between a paternalistic state and individual liberty? Does the state have a responsibility to warn people — if that? — as many people feel it failed to do in Indonesia? Or should it literally remove people from their homes — as (it) did in Florida prior to the hurricane and forbade them from returning until it was ‘safe.’ 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) — as you well know.”

Let me get to the principle at issue first. In a free society, it isn’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, earthquakes and such.

Of course, this is a “best world scenario,” which isn’t likely to emerge since people are too willing to fall prey to the temptation to take shortcuts, to try to make use of governments’ 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 insurance — which might then discourage them to buy there — but by government-enforced wealth-redistribution methods. (One bloke on the Los Angeles CBS all-news radio station, KNX, a member of its 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 others — bureaucrats, politicians, police, the Coast Guard, etc. — 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.

Were 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 neglected — when homes are badly built, on infirm grounds, or resorts badly secured against impending natural calamities — many of the horrors we have been witnessing of late would probably have been averted.
Instead, things are left to be dealt with by others — by people in government who are no miracle makers and whose attention is by no means focused on others’ interests.

Tibor Machan advises Freedom Communications, parent company of this newspaper. E-mail him at
Machan@chapman.edu