Sunday, October 17, 2010

What constitutes an "emergency" or "disaster"

Sandy Levinson

In the discussion at the Volokh Conspiracy sparked by Ilya Somin's response to my posting about whether libertarians can support spending government money on rescuing trapped miners, Bob (from Ohio) asserts that "[t]here is literally no one in the US, even libertarians, who believes that government should not respond to emergencies and disasters." It would be an entirely cheap shot to note that in a country of 310 or so million people it is unlikely that there is not even one person genuine anarchist who believes there should be no government at all or that there is no true "minimal statist" who would confine the role of the state to policing, national defense, and the enforcement of private contracts." I take it that Bob (from Ohio) is asserting something like "all reasonable people concede that a legitimate government has a role, even if it involves de facto redistributive measures, in responding to emergencies an disasters." But now the problem is how we define "emergencies" or "disasters," since no one claims that they are what philosophers call "natural kinds" (e.g., water as constituted by H2O) or, for some philosophers, lions, zebras, or tigers. Instead, I assume that even philosophical Realists will concede that definitions of "emergencies" and "disasters" are social constructs, inevitably influenced by our ideologies as to how the world workds. The very best writing on this that I am familiar with is by Stanford law professor Michelle Landis Dauber, who brilliantly noted that part of FDR's "packaging" of the New Deal was (correctly, I believe) to analogize what was happening to millions of people to earlier "natural disasters" that, by defintion, were not the fault of the people themselves. It is also instructive to read the majority's seminal opinion in the 1934 Blaisdell case (which is despised by most libertarians), in which the mortgage moratorium imposed by the Minnesota legislature (in violation of the "literal command" of the Contract Clause) is justified by analogizing the consequences of the Great Depression to those generated by natural disasters.

It is obvious that contemporary libertarians are prone to blame individuals for most (even if as Bob (from Ohio) suggests, not all) things that befall them; political liberals are far more likely to offer structuralist explanations that have the consequence of exempting individuals from "responsibility" for much of their fate. Trouble cases for liberals include, say, smokers (in today's world) or mountain climbers: As a matter of fact, I have no hesitation in saying that any mountain climber rescued by the state should be liable for the full cost of the rescue, unless, for some inexplicable reason, we wish to encourage (and thus subsidize) mountain climbing. I'd also make residents of Malibu pay the full costs of any fire protection they receive, etc. But I would think (and hope) that thoughtful conservatives/libertarians like Bob (from Ohio) would be equally troubled by leaving, say, children or the victims of structural unemployment and financial collapses to their own fate.


Though focusing on Bob (from Ohio) is not my favored approach (or not posting this there), SL does make a valid point here, one that focuses things a better than the more flame throwing approach last time.

The real question would be what is an "emergency" and what is a "disaster." And, what "government." Back in the day, the Katrina response would not be deemed appropriate for the federal government. Also, 'a role' is so vague to be unhelpful.

But, maybe the charm here is that when pressed, the differences between the two sides suddenly become much more nuanced than some of the rhetoric can imply. SL is not really to blame for the rhetoric on the other side.

I nearly responded to Bob over at VC, because his claim is contradicted by comments both here and there. I should note that he is himself not a libertarian and frequently disagrees with them.

What a strange philosophy, where government must of course act to save a relatively handful of people from an accident, but must never act to save hundreds of thousands of people from an economic catastrophe.

It might be helpful to consider the origins of what in the UK we call the Fire Brigades. The Great Fire of London of 1666 destroyed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, The Royal Exchange, The Guild Hall, the original St. Paul’s Cathedral and many other buildings.

After the great fire, the insurance companies developed fire brigades. Each insurance company had its "mark", usually a metal plaque fixed on the front of the building insured. If an insurance fire brigade came across a fire at one of their insured buildings, hey would try to put it out. But if it was at an uninsured building they would let it burn.

In 1828 the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire was formed to provide escape ladders to rescue people trapped by fire. These were put on street corners at night and kept in churchyards during the day.

By 1833 the fire insurance companies insurance companies pooled their resources into a single fire brigade known as the London Fire Engine Establishment.

But this still did not deal with the problem of the "freeloader" - the property owner who does not pay for fire insurance and whose fire has to be put out to prevent danger to other buildings.

So in the 1860's both the fire engines and the rescue ladders were municipalised - the operating costs to be paid for out of a tax (rates) on every property.

That provision is now universal in the UK and every local authority urban and rural has a fire and rescue service paid for out of local property taxation.

I imagine the same rationale for municipal brigades applies in urban areas of the USA - i.e, one cannot have freeloaders who do not pay their fair share for the provision of the service. I do not know however whether universal fire and rescue services exist in some of the more sparsely populated areas of your country.

Obviously, there are other specialists - public and private- for example the armed forces provide helicopter evacuations - there are volunteer mountain rescue teams - but the major private rescue service is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Out of the fire and rescue origin has grown the idea that there has to be a co-ordinated response to every circumstance where human life is in peril - be it a fire, a terrorist bomb on the underground or in a public place, a train or car crash, a flood, or whatever, and all the emergency services plan together for such emergencies and carry out small and large scale simulations.

A substantial group of libertarian-minded individuals do not believe that public government should be responsible for situations analogous to the Chilean mine disaster.

So what, precisely, counts as an "analogy" to the Chilean mining disaster (which, I presume from the perspective of "a substantial group of libertarians," should be called either an "event" or "a disaster from the perspective of the miners but not from the detached perspective of the result of us." Unlike what, Katrina, BP, the Great Depressoin, etc.

I was making a point regarding Bob's questionable assertion that libertarians want a state (a territorial monopoly on force, adjudication and taxation according to some libertarian definitions) undertaking such a rescue. Some would probably prefer that private individuals subsidize the rescue by paying the best engineers to make the effort. I am not saying this is necessarily reasonable but rather only pointing out that Bob's assertion is questionable.

As I'm sure you're aware, some libertarians/anarcho-capitalists believe that state responses to exceptions and emergencies can be replaced by market-based solutions.

But I would think (and hope) that thoughtful conservatives/libertarians like Bob (from Ohio) would be equally troubled by leaving, say, children or the victims of structural unemployment and financial collapses to their own fate.

To the extent that a self described libertarian such as myself prescribes to the classical liberalism upon which this Republic was founded, providing a basic safety net for the helpless (orphans or the mentally disabled) to the extent that private charity fails to do so is one of the basic roles of government.

There is no such thing as structural unemployment in a free economy. Rather, there is temporary unemployment caused by the business cycle or government interference. I agree with Hayek that basic social insurance where everyone contributes into an unemployment fund and everyone is eligible to withdraw from the fund for a limited period if unemployed without the intent of redistribution does not compromise a free economy.

The default response of a libertarian is two fold: (1) Is the proposed use of government fundamentally necessary and, (2) if necessary, why can't the individual or private organizations provide it for themselves. An individual's decision not to provide a need for himself is not the rest of society's problem.

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