Friday, November 2, 2012

"On Liberty"

Sydney M. Williams
Thought of the Day
“On Liberty”
November 2, 2012

On the grounds of the Mystic Seaport Museum (about twenty miles east of Old Lyme and a perfect venue for visiting grandchildren) sits a small boulder with a bronze tablet engraved with words commemorating a gift from Frederick F. Brewster and his wife to the museum. The tablet includes a message from Mr. and Mrs. Brewster that the gift was: “…to testify in years to come that a people inspired by God, with a sturdy sense of individual worth and personal responsibility may work out their destiny unaided and unafraid.”

Mystic Seaport is a recreation of a small New England seaport from which whalers and other merchant ships would sail. The entire village, in its way, is a testament to the brave men who went to sea, often for two or three years at a time. As I stood reading that statement, the contrast with what our federal government has become was as clear as the blue eyes of my youngest granddaughter. The speckled sky above contrasted with what it had been 48 hours earlier when Sandy swept over the northeast, taking lives, destroying homes and placing millions of people into darkness.

In the aftermath of Sandy, many on the Left are calling for more government. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo bemoaned that there is not “enough government money for all the proposed solutions.” The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA,) under pressure during Katrina seven years ago, is being lauded today. The Agency, now part of the Department of Homeland Security with 7400 employees, provides money and expertise to the states during disasters. It also manages the National Flood Insurance program. FEMA was created in 1978 through an Executive Order by President Carter; its role has expanded at a rate far exceeding the proliferation of natural disasters. During the Reagan years, annual FEMA disaster declarations averaged 28. That increased to 89.5 under President Clinton, 129.6 under President George W. Bush and 153 under President Obama. Bureaucracies – an example of Parkinson’s Law – allow for work to expand so as to fill the time available for its completion. Federal relief for natural disasters, however, predates FEMA. The federal government has been helping states and local communities since the early 19th Century.

The National Flood Insurance Program, a federally subsidized insurance plan which FEMA manages, carries liabilities, according to one report, of $1 trillion, with $3 billion in reserves – laughable in its insufficiency. The lead editorial in yesterday’s New London Day noted: “Because of the protection it provides, the program has encouraged construction in some flood-prone areas.” The editorial cites an example of a home in Wilkinson County, Mississippi that had been flooded 34 times since 1978. “The federal government paid the claims every time, totaling $663,000 on property with a $70,000 value.” Private insurance would have precluded building on the same place.

The New York Times and politicians like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo are using Sandy as an excuse to move forward with plans to combat climate change. Mr. Cuomo stated the obvious when he said: “Climate change is reality.” Any New Englander could have told him that without the benefit of Hurricane Sandy, and certainly without referring to man-made causes. “If you want a change in the weather, wait five minutes,” was a saying of New Hampshire farmers when I was growing up. Mr. Bloomberg added that, in his opinion, the severity of storms around the country and around the world are “much more severe than before.” Mr. Bloomberg’s assessment was contradicted in an op-ed in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal by Roger Pielke, a professor of environmental sciences at the University of Colorado. Professor Pielke details some of the most severe hurricanes to hit the United States over the past seventy-five years. He writes: “…the U.S. is currently in a hurricane ‘drought.’ The last category 3 or stronger storm was Wilma in 2005 [the same year as Katrina.] The more than seven years since then is the longest such span in over a century.” Rather than a harbinger, this “historic storm should remind us that planet Earth is a dangerous place where extreme events are commonplace and disasters are apt to be expected.” He adds: “Sandy is less an example of how bad things can get than a reminder that they could be much worse.”

Sanctimoniously audacious declarations from politicians and columnists who look for the “man-caused” in natural disasters do little to help prepare for the unexpected, or to advance knowledge of such events. Was man-caused climate change responsible for the eruption of Vesuvius 2000 years ago? Or was it the cause of the Bubonic Plague that swept through Europe in the 14th Century, or did man cause the 1906 Earthquake in San Francisco? Of course not! It is supercilious for any man to claim that he or his policies can tame nature. Unfortunately there is no way government can always protect us. They thinking they can, and us expecting they will, creates a false promise of deliverance that is unhealthy and, ultimately, illiberal. It is illiberal in that such thinking requires that we give up more personal responsibilities to a stealth-like creep in government.

Nevertheless, the federal government does serve a vital role in providing weather forecasts and intelligence as to the intensity of a pending storm, so that local officials can prepare evacuation venues if needed. The federal government can provide expertise and funds. Government should set and enforce building codes that comply with appropriate standards. Absent the heavily subsidized National Flood Insurance Program whose practices seem perverse, government can be useful in mandating land use; though common sense should preclude its necessity.

I have no proof of this, but my memory is that we never used to have the prolonged periods of electrical outages we have come to expect. In a twelve month period – August 1954 through August 1955 – the East Coast saw three sizable hurricanes make landfall: Carol, Hazel and Diane. (Carol was a Category 3, Hazel a Category 4 and Diane a Category 1.) Each of the storms, according to Professor Pielke, would, in 2012 dollars, have caused about twice as much damage as did Sandy. I remember losing electricity when I was growing up, but never for as many days as we now seem to. Raising children in Greenwich during the 1970s and ‘80s, we lost electricity because of storms, but never for the prolonged periods we now do. My youngest son has lived in Darien for eight years. He tells me that they have lost power for at least five days on five different occasions. In Old Lyme, our experience has been similar. That didn’t used to happen, or a least according to my, admittedly faulty memory, it didn’t.

Why? I am not sure, but my guess is that increased regulations and bloated bureaucracies have played a role in delaying restitution. The federal government’s assumption of more responsibility for disaster relief has certainly done little to more quickly restore our electricity. As responsibility for disaster relief and restoration of services becomes increasingly removed from affected localities, effectiveness and efficiency diminish. It makes good press for the President to helicopter over devastated areas (and I suppose if he didn’t he would be chided for being insensitive – i.e., George W. Bush in 2005,) but the truth is that only local authorities have knowledge of the community and its needs. Certainly the federal government can provide some funding and may have some special expertise, but these services are best and most efficiently delivered by the states and the local communities.

Each time we relinquish some authority to a higher power we lose some element of individual liberty. Society demands that we give up some personal liberty in order that we live without anarchy. The questions become: how much; what is the cost and what is the return?

No one wants to return to the early 19th Century when Mystic Seaport was a bustling village sending whaling ships out on two to three year voyages. Our capitalist society and the freedoms on which it was built have brought wealth beyond measure, enriching a few but raising living standards for everyone. That wealth, however, has also brought the institutionalization of compassion through numerous entitlement programs. But the promises of government have become larger than its capacity to deliver.

Liberty is both precious and fragile. Storms like Sandy are gifts to those who would accrue more power. Yet, the ceding of any right or responsibility to government should not be entered into lightly or carelessly. All governments are quick to assume authority; but they give it up only reluctantly. The motto on the plaque dedicated to Mr. and Mrs. Brewster reads: “Sturdy Hearts Make a Safe Ship.” There is nothing on it that says government will be our benefactor.

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