The Free Market, Small Government, and Hurricane Irene
With the increasing possibility that Hurricane Irene will deliver a “hundred year” event to the Eastern Seaboard, the time has come to examine the level of preparedness our exposed citizens on the coast face, as well as the anticipated scope and extent of what is likely to be a massive local, state and federal response.
This examination does not necessarily concern those who live in the areas frequently visited by hurricanes. The residents of Miami, Cape Hatteras or the Outer Banks of North Carolina are certainly not unfamiliar with the yearly dance with the Atlantic weather they must deal with, nor are the residents of the embattled Gulf Coast region.
Rather, the focus is now on homeowners and businesses in areas not traditionally visited by hurricanes: That is, those who live and do business on the coasts north of Washington, D.C., in what is the most heavily populated region of the United States.
It shouldn't surprise anybody that nearly every inch of eastern American coastline is spoken for in one way or another. Be it vacation homes, resorts, or vast spreads on the water with beautiful views of the sunrise, this land ranks among the most desirable in the U.S.
You've heard the popular refrain: “Why is it that people insist on living in areas that are prone to flooding?” After all, in the face of regularly occurring natural disasters, the normal human response is to flee danger and seek out relative safety.
Often, these concerns (complaints) are directed towards those who inhabit America's massive breadbasket – the proverbial “Heartland of America.” Geographically speaking, the American Midwest can be considered to be simultaneously a gigantic drainage system and one massive floodplain. Any irregularity in annual rainfall often spells disaster for tens of thousands of residents in areas protected largely by a system of levees designed decades ago.
Every year after the winter ice melts, it seems as if the inhabitants of the Midwest face an existential crisis. Americans most recently experienced the “Great Floods of 2011,” which cumulatively required unusually strong and proactive efforts by the U.S. Corps of Army Engineers to avert further damage to vast swaths of the heartland.
Far less frequent – though not quite in the realm of “irregular” – are tropical hurricanes that happen to veer the “wrong way” and plow straight into America's “other” heartland: The concentrated center of our national economy more commonly referred to as our Northeast Megalopolis.
Cue the Invisible Hand
This brings us full circle, and back to the title of this piece: With all of the talk of a smaller government and reduced federal footprint swirling as of late, what will the most elite (in terms of income) of American voters expect in terms of a coordinated federal response to what might be considered a predictable natural event?
Constitutional scholars will confirm that the founding fathers did not anticipate any sort of need for a broad national response to what is essentially a local problem unrelated to the needs of national security. After all, the recollection of “large and damaging coastal storms” goes back at least to antiquity. Certainly, many among them would have protested the collection of taxes to support the lifestyle choices and homestead decisions of a few – especially if those few happened to be among the most able to protect themselves financially.
What we are about to witness is the concept of “Too Big To Fail” – except this time, we're referring not to banks, but to the tony neighborhoods that stretch from the Chesapeake to Cape Cod.
“Free marketism” and faith in the invisible hand would suggest that individuals in these areas have already anticipated Hurricane Irene, and have taken all of the appropriate risk-adjusted measures to protect themselves from impending doom. Homes should have been built on ground higher than “hundred year” flood levels; walls and windows should be able to withstand excessive wind forces. Individual flood insurance on private property should already be in place. Local infrastructure should have been built in anticipation of having to rapidly move the inhabitants of congested neighborhoods to the relative safety of higher inland ground. Local authorities should have plans already in place to deal with any anticipated problem, and will have already set aside the appropriate level of funds needed to deal with said problems.
Alas, this is unlikely to be the case. As it is often with “heads I win, tails you lose,” it appears that the rest of America is getting ready to whip out the National Checkbook to take care of what is likely to be a largely unprepared East Coast. Though we might be a bit premature in our prognostications, the guess is that there will be a massive, simultaneous declaration of “emergency,” followed by an equally broad call for help in the form of national disaster relief spending.
This is not, mind you, a call to abandon those on our coasts simply because they might have found themselves relatively unprepared. Rather, it is a reminder – one that has not been repeated enough – that “things happen,” and even those who believe they are prepared often fail to anticipate the true nature and level of risk they face until the stark reality of life is bearing down on them.
As Americans consider their choices in the upcoming 2012 elections, we should consider what it means to have engaged in the “Social Contract” often cited by those who prefer a smaller, limited government: Does it mean allowing those who were aware of risks to suffer the consequences of a lack of preparedness, or does it suggest that Americans across the country owe it to our fellow citizens on the coasts to step in and help them in times of hardship? Our national response, come next week, will be an excellent exercise in the needs of reality versus the intellectual exercise of theory.
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