The Politics of Emergencies

 Posted by on 4 August 2005 at 11:02 pm  Uncategorized
Aug 042005

In her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Ayn Rand observed:

It is on the ground of that generalized good will and respect for the value of human life that one helps strangers in an emergency–and only in an emergency.

It is important to differentiate between the rules of conduct in an emergency situation and the rules of conduct in the normal conditions of human existence. This does not mean a double standard of morality: the standard and the basic principles remain the same, but their application to either case requires precise definitions.

An emergency is an unchosen, unexpected event, limited in time, that creates conditions under which human survival is impossible–such as a flood, an earthquake, a fire, a shipwreck. In an emergency situation, men’s primary goal is to combat the disaster, escape the danger and restore normal conditions (to reach dry !and, to put out the fire, etc.).

By “normal” conditions I mean metaphysically normal, normal in the nature of things, and appropriate to human existence. Men can live on land, but not in water or in a raging fire. Since men are not omnipotent, it is metaphysically possible for unforeseeable disasters to strike them, in which case their only task is to return to those conditions under which their lives can continue. By its nature, an emergency situation is temporary; if it were to last, men would perish.

The principle that the only proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights is obviously formed in the context of “metaphysically normal” circumstances of human life. So might a government legitimately act to preserve human life by providing temporary assistance (like rescue services, medical care, or food and water) in an emergency like a natural disaster? In theory, I suppose it might. Yet it’s worth considering the limited circumstances under which that would be possible.

(For the record, although this post was inspired by some comments on my post on Nathaniel Branden’s Free Radical interview, it is not directly related. I am here concerned with the application of Ayn Rand’s views on the ethics of emergencies to the nuts and bolts of government action. In contrast, Nathaniel Branden claimed that his muddled proposal for unspecified government aid in natural disasters was a point of disagreement with Objectivism.)

Most natural disasters do not constitute emergencies at all in modern societies. In the US and elsewhere, regular folks can and do prepare themselves for hurricanes, floods, wildfires, earthquakes, and such — depending upon local risk factors. They plan escape routes, build levees, install fire-proof roofs, secure water heaters, and so on. In addition to such general preparations, people often have more than adequate warning about natural disasters thanks to the glories of technology, such that they can remove themselves from danger in plenty of time, often with their most valued possessions in tow.

Personally, I’ve been on evacuation alert in two major fires, the first for 24 hours (in Alpine, California in 2001), the second for 14 days (in Sedalia, Colorado in 2002). Although both times were quite stressful, neither constituted an emergency. Human life was still very much possible. In contrast, consider the following news report on the people caught unexpectedly in the first hours of the massive fires in San Diego in 2003:

One victim was found dead in a trailer, one in a motor home and four in vehicles, county sheriff’s spokeswoman Susan Knauss said. Three were killed while trying to escape on foot and two were dead on arrival at local hospitals.

“We were literally running through fire,” said Lisza Pontes, 43, who escaped the fire with her family after the roar of flames woke them at 3:45 a.m. As they drove off, they saw a neighbor’s mobile home explode.

“I was grabbing wet towels. Fire was at our feet,” Pontes said. “It was blazing over our heads and burning everywhere.”

Now that’s a genuine emergency! A life-loving person in such a dire situation has only one option, namely desperate flight to safety. Given the wild urgency of such genuine emergencies, however, governments are unlikely to be able to render assistance in flight. Sure, a police officer might give a ride to a stranded civilian in the course of fleeing the danger himself. But such isolated actions of individual government agents are hardly significant in this context.

In many cases, the danger might be pressing but not yet overwhelming, such as when a wildfire approaches a residential neighborhood. In that case, presumably all the resources of the police must be devoted to upholding law and order so as to make a safe and speedy evacuation possible. Moreover, the people in the area are not yet in an emergency. They are responsible for removing themselves from danger, just as a person with chest pain is responsible for seeking medical attention. If a person does not have the resources to do so on his own (e.g. vehicle, money, friends), he must find some benevolent soul willing to help him.

If a person manages to remove himself from the danger at hand, he is once again protected by the comforts of civilization. If need be, he can rely upon friends, family, businesses, and even charity to get his life back on stable footing. Government assistance would be illegitimate.

In some cases, the scope of the devastation wrought by natural disaster may be so great that a person cannot leave the scene of the calamity. Instead, he must make do as best he can with what he has. For example, consider a decent person caught in a massive earthquake. His apartment building, along with his car, is destroyed. His emergency supplies are buried somewhere under the rubble. He needs food and water, perhaps even medical attention. Certainly, such a person is an innocent victim worthy of help. But what assistance might a proper government be able to offer him in those critical first days? Remember, such a government would be limited to the police, the courts, and the military.

Obviously, the courts would be of no help whatsoever. The police would have no supplies to dole out — but they would need to quickly regroup from their own earthquake damage in order to prevent looting and other crimes of opportunity. Perhaps our man is lucky enough to live near a military base. It might distribute some of the food, water, and other supplies it has on hand. Yet like the police officer who flees a wildfire with a civilian in tow, such help would be totally ad hoc. Once an organized effort could be gotten underway, plenty of assistance would already be pouring in from outlying areas.

Ultimately, our man must rely upon his own good judgment, perhaps in cooperation with other reasonable people, to procure the basic goods he needs to survive the next few days. Such is not terribly difficult in the United States, thanks to its robust infrastructure, advanced technology, and responsive economy. That’s why we suffer so few deaths from natural disasters.

Of course, people living in undeveloped countries are far more likely to suffer and die under the harsh lash of Mother Nature. Huts are washed away by tsunamis, mud brick houses collapse in earthquakes, and crops die in drought. Private aid agencies may help out the victims of such disasters on a case-by-case basis. Yet the only long-term solution to the problem of Mother Nature is the freedom afforded by capitalism. Capitalism makes people more resilient to the disasters of nature by making possible the accumulation of wealth, the investment in the long-term, and the unleashing of human creativity. The result is that genuine emergencies become increasingly rare, even in natural disasters.

That’s a lesson that far too many countries still need to learn, unfortunately enough.

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