Monday, September 5, 2011

Hurricane Aristotle

Hurricane Irene off the coast of Florida
"We Survived Hurricane Frances". That was the title of my journal (posted HERE), cataloging our experience in my pre-blogger days. It was 2004 and it was the first hurricane of substance in our Florida experience. I sent my journal to friends and colleagues by email until the power went out. Some thought it was hysterical. Others were unmoved.

As for us, we were scared. Frances was a Category 2 storm bearing down on us. It made landfall 20 miles from our house.

We had plans to leave on vacation that week but stayed to make sure my parents were okay. We moved them into our house because we knew it would be safer. You see, our house was built after 1992’s Hurricane Andrew and theirs wasn’t. Homes built to the post-Andrew standard could easily withstand the winds of Frances.

I was thinking of this as I received messages, read Facebook postings and watched news footage of Hurricane Irene’s destruction this past week. Folks in the northeast – particularly those of the inland communities – simply weren’t ready for what happened.

Amid this news, I listened to Larry Kudlow interview with Texas Congressman and presidential candidate, Ron Paul. Rep. Paul is as pure a libertarian as any politician I know of. If you have never studied the philosophy of libertarianism or read the works of its patron saint, Emmanuel Kant, you need only follow Paul’s presidential campaign to learn about it.

In the considered opinion of Rep. Paul, people make conscious choices about where they live – either implicitly or explicitly assuming the associated risks. If you want to live on the beach in Florida or in a flood plain along a river bank, you should not expect the rest of the taxpayers to insure your risk when the private market won’t.

Main St. in Prattsville, post-Irene
Tell that to the citizens of Prattsville, NY. Hurricane Irene completely destroyed every building on Main Street. It is highly unlikely that the city will survive without financial assistance from outside sources. Did the good people of Prattsville make a conscious choice to assume the risk of this outcome? Some might have; but, I doubt it. Most news reports featured long time or lifelong residents. Whether they had considered the risk or hadn’t, should we, as taxpayers, bail them out of their trouble? That is the philosophical question posed by the current debate about funding FEMA in Washington.

Libertarians, like Ron Paul, would say no. John Rawls, a political philosopher of the 20th Century, offers a different approach. In “A Theory of Justice” (1971), he theorizes that if citizens were to write a social contract expressing principles to which the majority agrees, we would not be a libertarian society. But, there is a twist to Rawls’ approach. He asks that we assume we all start from an equal position. No one has an economic, social or educational advantage. He reasoned that from this position, most people would choose a more risk averse course. Rawls concludes that we would agree on a social contract that guarantees basic liberties (speech, religion, etc.) and economic justice. He believed we would choose a system where the most well off would insure the basic needs of the least well off members of society.

Hah! Tell that to Ron Paul and his followers.

Anyone who buys my house (and, here’s hoping somebody will someday), will pay for the security of Florida’s building standards. We weren’t sweating Hurricane Irene when it was aimed at Florida. We knew we could withstand the storm. (Don’t get me wrong. We weren’t looking forward to it either.) That additional cost is built into our social contract with the state and its homebuilders. And, I haven’t heard anyone complain about it. In a purely libertarian state, we would all be left to negotiate the degree of hurricane proof-ness with our builder.

So, what is Congress up to while the folks in Prattsville are contemplating their future? Well, the Republicans are not willing to de-fang FEMA – not after the spectacle of Katrina undermined President Bush’s credibility. But, they are willing to trade additional funding for FEMA for funds now going to liberal programs they don’t like, such as subsidies to the alternative energy industry.

Sounds like business as usual.

There are various approaches to government (including the utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill which I won’t go into here). They have their intellectual roots in the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries and form the basis of the current debate about how we should govern ourselves.

The ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle believed that the principles by which society should be governed should be the result of reasoned debate among the elite. The core of his logic was that reasonable, intelligent people should decide what virtues it should honor and reward and what should be punished. This should be a fluid and ongoing process, Aristotle would say.

Isn’t that what our legislatures are supposed to do?

This is just one example of the unreasonable lack of reason being applied to the nation’s problems. I wouldn’t expect the Congress to debate Kant vs. Rawls. But, shouldn’t they be having a reasoned debate as opposed to posturing, conniving and threatening.

Meanwhile the Bully Pulpit – used so effectively by the last two presidents, Bush and Clinton – seems to have been ceded to the last two Speakers of the House, Boehner and Pelosi.

It makes you wonder….



  1. Great piece, John (as usual). I had to read carefully as I tried to discover your opinion of Ron Paul. A counterfeit libertarian or faux libertarian or the real deal. Either way, I conclude you don't support his overall political philosophy.

    A practical tangential discussion from your piece might be the resurrection (again) of a national catastrophe insurance program (some libertarian-types might call it a re-distribution of wealth!...whatever!) so that we have a United States that could more cohesively spread the risk (a fundamental premise of insurance - the law of large numbers) as we assist each (across state lines other via our equally spread insurance premiums). We here in Florida could certainly benefit!


  2. OK ! Well done......not sure which side you are flopping on here.....and that's good....but Americans are a giving people....look at the billions raised every year for charities and the like....a simple news show about an impoverished family or someone who lost a home to a fire causes large somes of money to be sent to those people. We are a giving people and congress should follow our lead.

  3. Two points:

    1. Libertarianism: Philosophers and scientists who believe that the universe is indeterministic and that humans possess free will are known as “libertarians” (libertarianism in this sense is not to be confused with the school of political philosophy called libertarianism). (Encyclopedia Britannica.)

    2. Moral hazard: Whenever the government acts to use public money to reverse the effects of risky behavior, it encourages more risky behavior. And the risk takers benefit.

    Am I heartless?

    No. To the contrary. I don’t want to be the one who explains to the hard working family in Rochester that, without their permission, the government intends to take their money and give it to a family, who had no insurance, and whose house was destroyed. And the plan is to rebuild this home in the same area.

    By doing this the government, (time and time again in the real world) subsidizes risk and thus encourages it.

    Why? Many votes are bought when “compassionate” politicians demonstrate their generosity – with other people’s money, not their own. It’s very difficult for me to appreciate the virtue of their generosity when it’s my money. It also leaves the insurance company unable to compete by lowering the price of insurance to zero.

    Add to this that there is no incentive for the politician to distribute this largesse equally. If the one family in Rochester lacks flood insurance and their basement floods, there are no photo ops. They’re on their own. (And this leaves aside the more destructive point. Government funded reconstruction is never done as efficiently or carefully as privately funded reconstruction.)

    In a more libertarian world, people would avoid building where no insurance could be obtained, because private insurance – whose business it is to pool risks – would be the obvious and primary vehicle used to protect their investment. The bank would be equally at risk, and thus quite interested in insured collateral, even more if they knew no government assistance could be expected.

    But what if these families and banks are ignorant of these risks? The idea that families would need to be experts and great predictors of future disasters in order to emerge whole is misguided.

    This market insight about the added risk would be easily conveyed even to ignorant buyers through the mechanism of price. “Yes, your house is expensive because insurance costs are high. If you want to save money, simply build further inland.” In this more libertarian conception of the world, wise parents would, as a matter of custom, counsel their children on things like this. It would be taken as the “way of the world.”

    But there’s no need now for self reliance now, in the world where risks are subsidized.

    This seems a more honest and caring model than forcing, by threat of coercion and violence, the family in Rochester to cough up more of their wages.

    Also, such charity is better done voluntarily. Many charities do excellent work, from a real sense of caring, not political motivation. This is where I encourage my compassionate friends to give full exercise to their sympathies. (The great blooming of American charities occurred in the most liberated times, from about 1890 – 1920. Social pressure was strong on the wealthy to sponsor charities.) But even the most compassionate of us would hesitate if the family came back with the same disaster twice. The government doesn’t seem to tire of disaster relief.

    We’re not stupid. We know this happens. But all the while, there is simply no education in the second kick of a mule. So let’s stop voting that way.

  4. Any conception that arises from any sense of the supposed public altruism must then be administered. Where do we find these angels?

    I greatly prefer the imperfections of the market, where prices aggregate all costs, including risks and incentives needn’t be understood beyond that.

    The ideal never meets the practical. The imperfections of government administration with its coercive power are legion and the results always fall farther from the ideal than real market solutions

  5. Good stuff. I've always wondered how people in California get away with building in high-fire-risk areas or put their pricey stilted homes on steep hillsides that are almost guaranteed to wash away in heavy flooding. Likewise, people build right on the ocean or other high-flood areas and end up having to be rescued. As compassionate as I am, I don't see the practicability of this and really don't want to subsidize their stupidity or stubbornness or whatever makes them do such things.

    I've lived in Florida for many years, seen many hurricanes, sat through the famous destruction of Donna ('60) with winds that hit Category 5 at one point in the Keys. We arrived in SW Miami on Sept. 10 for me to register at college and that night our two-story brick motel was swaying in the wind. The next day there were boats on the road and cars in the ocean--which 80mph. winds can't begin to accomplish and the storm surge didn't get that far inland. The smell of dead things (fish, birds and vegetation mostly) was almost unbearable for days afterwards as the heat turned everything into a rotten soup. They said virtually everything in the Keys was sand blasted beyond recognition--no paint on signs, buildings, etc.

    History says it only broke 80mph. in Miami, but I beg to differ. I was walking around that afternoon around 4pm in 75mph. winds but had to retreat when the storm really hit. At about 2am we were scared silly as the jalousie windows vibrated so shrilly that we thought they would blow out, sucking us with them. The storm surge was 12 ft. in some areas.

    It doesn't make sense to tempt Mother Nature and those who do should pay the price. If they prohibited building in such risky areas of the coastline, then it would be left for recreation and people wouldn't die or become homeless from these inevitable storms. Let the insurance companies have their way (refuse coverage/prevent building) with those who would defy Big Momma and the world would be better off.

  6. Well written, but points out several reasons why we chose to move to Panama. There is NO ONE left to lead!