Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Chasing Noah

As it turns out, the maiden entry on this blog ends up being a response to a post on another blog. For some time now I've been meaning to program a blog for myself and not finding the time. So for now, this spot on Blogger will have to do. Noah sent an email asking me to look at his post, so I'm using this as an excuse to get started.

Aparently NPR was allowing another socialist to spout off about Katrina. Noah, who describes himself as sliding "into the netherworld of classical liberalism," took some issues with it.

Not enough, as it turns out. Noah may be "sliding," but I've been in this netherworld for years, and one of the issues that really raises my hackles is the idea that the government either could or should have done more than it did to help New Orleans after Katrina.

Quoting Marcellus Andrews (the aforementioned public spender):

Katrina claimed so many because the people of Louisiana and the good ole US of A pretended that safety is a private good instead of a public good.

To which Noah responds:

Is safety a 'good' at all? I suppose in relation to dangers like natural disasters, you could make the case that it is, but whatever problems arise from this are irrelevant to the failure of the levee system in New Orleans.

We can nitpick about whether goods have to be tangible, but I think it's fair to say that safety is a value that people are willing to pay for and can therefore be talked about as a "good." People buy guns, attend martial arts classes, pay for outside floodlights and burglar alarms all in the name of safety - and these are crucially private purchases made by private individuals to their individual benefit. It would have been better to say that safety very definitely is a value, and a largely private one at that. Mr. Andrews may be right that there is also a concept of "public safety," but clearly "safety" in general is not (exclusively) a "public" good.

Noah writes:

In fact, the levees protecting New Orleans were designed to withstand a category three storm, and Katrina was category five. Someone(s), somewhere(s), made a (series of) decision(s) about precisely how to build the levees, and they simply were not built for a storm like the one that hit. It has nothing (directly) to do with philosophical considerations of economics and public vs. private safety.

Well, actually I think it does insofar as the decision to build the levee only up to cat-3 specs rather than cat-5 specs was a calculated, money-saving risk. It's not unlike the perennially healthy person who elects not to pay the high premiums for maximum coverage on his health insurance. Of course, rare and dread diseases are always a possibility, even for healthy people, but a person who rarely gets sick or suffers accidents may come to the conclusion that the relatively low risk of serious disease or injury isn't enough to justify the higher premiums on a better coverage plan. It's the kind of decision that can only be evaluated after the fact: a calculated risk that either pays off or it doesn't. In the case of New Orleans, the question is how high a premium should be placed on public safety. Mr. Andrews seems to think that no expense
should be spared in providing for public safety, but that's a position one seriously doubts he would defend in other areas. For example, the inevitable price of civil liberties is that the police will not have the power or resources they need to completely eradicate crime. We accept a tradeoff here: individual liberty at the expense of some acceptable level of danger from crime. Public health is similar. No doubt we could lengthen the average lifespan by allowing the government to regulate what everyone eats, how often they exercise, etc. Again, we accept less-than-ideal health standards in exchange for individual freedom and saved monitoring/enforcement costs, etc. The money that could have been spent on the levee either went to some other public expense or wasn't charged to the taxpayers. In either case, it was a calculated tradeoff. The risk of a cat-5 storm hitting soon was deemed small in proportion to the expense required to prepare for it.

Where Mr. Andrews goes wrong, really, is in attempting to deny that such tradeoffs exist. The truth is that they do exist - and in every possible economic system, not just Capitalism.

Quoting Marcellus Andrews:

A truly moral economy provides freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath.

Noah responds:

It's delusional to think that 'freedom from fear as well as freedom from nature's wrath' are attainable. Also, it's not at all clear to me what Mr. Andrews believes 'moral' means, nor why something like an economy should, or how it even could, be 'moral.'

I agree that it's delusional to thin that freedom from fear or nature's wrath are attainable. Even the healthiest of people sometimes take ill and die suddenly. More on this later. But I have a bone to pick with the idea that no economy can be "moral." Noah's right, strictly speaking, that an economy has no moral value, but I think there are such things as moral and immoral economic systems. Mr. Andrews was just being imprecise: he should have said "A truly moral economic system..." I would then argue that Mr. Andrews has it backward as to which system is "immoral." Lassiez-faire Capitalism, which allows individuals to retain the wealth they produce and the freedom to use this wealth in the pursuit of their own goals, is clearly a more "moral" system than any sort of welfare state (which I assume Mr. Andrews advocates) which forcibly takes wealth from productive people and places great restrictions on which goals individuals can pursue and how they can pursue them. This brings me to Noah's final point, which I think is an excellent one:

Clearly, Mr. Andrews is a proponent of plentiful social spending. He states as simple, unargued fact that schools, among other things, are a public good. I can't help wondering, though, if more of New Orleans poor had had the opportunity to avoid the pointlessness of so much of public school by, say, getting more or less immediately marketable vocational training, would they have had the money to get out when the storm hit?

Indeed. More to the point, why didn't they get out when the storm hit? Here is something that has nothing to do with economics: any individual who chooses to live in a hurricane-prone floodplane owes it to himself to have a contingency plan, no? Expecting the government to protect you from each and every possible natural disaster is a bit like moving to a high-crime area and then not locking your door. Technically it is the job of the police to keep you safe from crime, yes, but in reality this in an impossible task for any police force that respects even a small amount of civil liberty. Well, it shouldn't shock anyone that the government doesn't have the resources to provide for absolute safety from natural disaster either. Absolute safety from natural disaster in a coastal floodplane like New Orleans is expensive on a scale few can imagine. Living there entails risk from floods and hurricanes, and citizens who chose to make their lives there should plan accordingly.

The lesson from Katrina should be this: the government isn't always there for you, nor can it be expected to be. Indeed, sometimes government prevention efforts exacerbate the problems they are intended to solve. I can't help but wonder what the population of New Orleans absent the government-funded levee would really be. One presumes it would be much lower - because the cost of setting up shop on a hurricane-prone floodplane would not be artificially lowered by the presence of the government-funded levee's "guarantee." In some real sense, building the levee in the first place was the precondition for the disaster. Where we went wrong was allowing people to forget this by putting expenses and responsibility for it over on the government, and therefore out of mind.


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