L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 337, September 18, 2005
"Prison Time For Gun Confiscators!"
The Flood of Sympathy
Special to TLE
It's impossible to turn on the television, read a newspaper, or visit an Internet news portal without seeing myriad photos and stories about the disaster that is America's Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. New Orleans has, in large part, been obliterated. So, too, have smaller and less famous towns in Louisiana and Mississippi. The cost in material goods and property is staggering; the cost in human lives is even more so.
People in those areas affected by the storm are clamoring for aid and complaining they're receiving too little too late. There is more than a little truth to their contention that help has been delayed or, in some cases, denied all together. Some, including politicians in Louisiana, are chastising the federal government for its inept rescue efforts. But who is really to blame? I personally only experienced a small piece of Hurricane Katrina as she blew herself out over a sizable portion of the rest of the eastern and midwestern US, but my own little trauma serves to illustrate one of the two things that's really wrong with our handling of this natural catastrophe.
Every week throughout the summer, a few of us get together at a friend's house for a casual backyard barbecue. We usually spend the evening in the back yard enjoying the garden and each other's company while we eat and chat. As Hurricane Katrina put in her much weakened appearance, though, the wind and rain sent us indoors to enjoy our food. After dinner, we were enjoying a few drinks and some card games when there came a sudden loud crash. The house shook. We all cast startled looks at each other, then dropped everything and ran outside to see what on earth had just happened.
We stood in the driveway and stared. A large willow tree, rooted in a neighbor's yard, had finally given in to Katrina's wind gusts after withstanding years of other storms. The tree crash landed across the garden, smashing several fences on its way down and flattening almost the entire back yard. We were lucky it missed the house; if it fallen just a few degrees further in one direction, the tree would have crashed into the roof directly above our heads. We were even luckier that the rain had kept us inside.
As soon as the initial shock wore off, my friend started thinking aloud about just how and when the tree might be removed. One of the other guests immediately piped up, "Oh, just call the city. They'll take care of it." No, my friend said, they won't. This happened on private property, and the city won't do a thing. "What?" exclaimed the guest. "What do we pay taxes for, then?"
Despite my own best efforts and those of my friend (who is not, by the way, ignorant of all of the inroads the government has already made into our personal lives), the guest remained adamant that he thought the city should come to the rescue. The longer we talked about it, the more unhappy he was that the city wouldn't be taking care of the problem. He didn't care that the tree had been rooted on private property; it didn't matter to him that the tree fell on private property. He simply couldn't understand why the government wouldn't make it all better and alleviate my friendand her neighborsfrom the chore.
That the willow tree fell was something of a surprise, yet the neighbors had insurance for just such unplanned damages. The tree, once dried out, was removed promptly by the neighbor and the homeowner together. This is how such things ought to work. We each weigh the risks of what we do, and how and where we live, and make plans accordingly. Well, we ought to, anyway! Meanwhile, because we're responsible for the choices we make, the government (in general) doesn't tell us where we must live or what kind of trees we can or can't plant.
Now let's go back to New Orleans for a moment where the damage is far, far worse than anything that could be caused by a mere falling tree. Homes and businesses alike are severely flooded, otherwise damaged, or both. Some structures are nothing but rubble or kindling. Fires have resulted from damaged gas lines; sewers have backed up and into the roiling floodwaters; levies are broken and bridges destroyed. But here's the thing: New Orleans is seven feet below sea level, protected from the Gulf only by a series of levees that some have suggested for years have needed improvement. (Many are blaming the federal government for its failure to fund those improvements, yet why should the tax dollars of those who need to protect against tornadoes in Kansas pay for levees in Louisiana?)
Storms as severe as Katrina don't occur often, but they do show up on occasion. New Orleans and many other coastal cities in that part of the country essentially have targets superimposed on them. Eventually, one of those storms is going to hit that target, and there will be hell to pay. In fact, emergency scenarios discussed and rehearsed by various emergency agencies in the New Orleans area turned out to have been closely predictive of the actual event. The truth is that there can't possibly be an adult on the Gulf Coast who doesn't know that he or she lives in hurricane country and what that might prove to mean.
Despite this, state and local agencies appeared largely unready for mass evacuations and are scrambling to handle widespread devastation. At least officials had it right when they saw the storm coming and ordered an evacuation! But some citizens voluntarily decided to defy the orders and ride the storm out. Now, of course, those who survived are demanding assistance. Meanwhile, though anyone living in New Orleans can't be ignorant of the city's high water table and bowl-like shape, some estimates suggest that as many as 50% or more of New Orleans homeowners didn't have flood insurance. Please note that that's homeowners, not poor renters. That, of course, means there's a strong likelihood that the government will be asked to foot loans or even to bear the cost of rebuilding in entirety (never mind that insurance would have meant much the same thing since it's the federal government that provides flood insurance).
A New Orleans newspaper, temporarily working out of offices in Baton Rouge, printed an editorial that strongly criticized the federal government for its slow response. In fairness, the logistics for such a widespread disaster are complex at best. But by the same token, there have been some inexcusable (and just plain stupid) decisions made and delays caused at least in part as a result of putting FEMA under the auspices of Homeland Security and the corresponding concentration on terrorist attacks rather than natural disasters. Still, why is it the government that's responsible for cleaning up the mess created when people voluntarily bought, built, and lived below sea level in an area that would, sooner or later, have a 100% chance of getting hit with a major storm and its accompanying devastation?
That, in fact, doubtless played a major role in Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert's comments that perhaps New Orleans shouldn't be rebuilt after all (not surprisingly, the fall-out was such that Hastert later "clarified" his comments to say he was concerned with how the city is rebuilt, not with whether or not it should be). Despite the immediate outcry from Louisiana politicians (and, not surprisingly, Democrats), it seems that most Americans might just be inclined to side with Hastert. In a WorldNetDaily poll that asked whether or not New Orleans should be rebuilt, fully 60% of those responding at the time I last saw the poll said that it should not be. Their rationale? "The city sits 7 feet below sea levelwe could spend billions only to have it flood again in another hurricane."
Let me now and for the record state that I'm appalled at the horrific conditions in New Orleans today. I grieve for the lost history. To a far greater extent, I mourn for those who suffer and who died without a real choice in the matter: the sick and hospitalized, the seriously disabled, the children, and the pets. For all of those others who chose to live in a city with a risk of floods but who failed to plan for such an eventuality, I have little sympathy. For those who saw the weather forecast and got a good look at the wind speeds and chose not to evacuate, well, there's an old saying that goes, "You get what you pay for." (As an aside, those who stayed behind and are looting, shooting, or otherwise using this disaster for personal gain should get what they pay for, too, and be shot on sight.)
For each and every able-bodied person who took welfare paymentsand who is now demanding still more government largesseI give the warning I dearly wish the government would give: It ends here. You get food and shelter for now, but only for now. You pick yourself up, and take responsibility for you and yours for a change. There's going to be plenty of clean-up and construction work in New Orleans shortly if you want to go back; if you'd prefer not to live below sea level any more, this is your golden opportunity to go somewhere else. And wherever you go, remember:
If you stay in New Orleans, this could happen again. Be ready. If you end up in California, get earthquake insurance. If you move to Texas or Oklahoma, be sure you have a storm shelter. Don't forget that fires can happen anywhere as can thunderstorms and their accompanying lightning. And for heaven's sake, if you refuse to make plans, consider risks, and take responsibility for yourself and your dependents, don't have children and don't get pets! Their pain, suffering, and loss is on your shoulders, not the government's, if you do.
If too many people continue to rely too much on governmentwhether it be local, state, federal, or a combination of the threethen the government is going to start imposing still more rules. Forget choosing to have flood insurance or not; you'll simply be prohibited from living near water. Never mind earthquake damages because California will be closed to new building or new residents. Want to live in Kansas? Only if you're willing to live and work underground. (Don't scoff. This is precisely the argument used when many state governments mandated motorcycle helmets, a requirement which many riders abhor as a driving hazard in and of themselves.)
If you'd rather continue to have options as to how and where you live, the sports and hobbies you enjoy, the trees you'd like most to plant near your house, or even the food you eat or the job you hold, you'd best stop relying on government to swoop in to rescue you from your bad or irresponsible decisions, or from your failure to plan according to whatever risks might be involved. For once, I'm going to take the government's side, here: If it has to pay for everything, then it has every right to demand certain risk management from you, and it will likely begin to do so more and more often as advantage of federal relief funding is taken more and more frequently.
The real problem isn't so much that some people would prefer to be as children throughout their lives and taken care of accordingly. It's that, because of those "children," the rest of us are treated as infantile as well. And those of us who do take responsibility seriously are getting mighty fed up with alternately having to playand pay"mama" to the rest of you, or being humiliated, regulated, prohibited, and mandated almost to the complete death of freedom (or adulthood, for that matter) by a government that fears we're as irresponsible as you are.
Note: While I freely acknowledge that I resent the government being made solely responsible for things beyond infrastructure and which are rightly the responsibility of private property owners, I do support those private charities and organizations which are doing all that they can to help those who lost everything as a result of Hurricane Katrina. If you choose to donate funds beyond your tax dollars, there are several worthy groups that could use your help, including my own favorites: The Salvation Army and The Humane Society of the United States.