- Libertarian conservatives emphasize personal responsibility and oppose social responsibility except for enforcing property rights.
- Liberals emphasize social responsibility and tend to leave personal responsibility out of policy considerations.
Both sides have a point. Both personal and social responsibility have always been essential to the success of America, and indeed are essential to any society most of us would want to live in.
But each side makes an error:
- Conservatives believe that any responsibility society takes will undermine personal responsibility.
- Liberals believe that there is little chance of this, and little cause for concern.
A natural disaster will serve to illustrate where both sides go wrong. Suppose there were three magnitude 7.5 to 7.7 earthquakes centered at the corner of Missouri, KY and TN, as there were in 1811-12.(1) The New-Madrid earthquakes occurred on 12/16/1811, 1/23/1812 and 2/7/1812. The first of these was followed by a 7.0 after shock, and it cause strong shaking in an area 10 times larger than the San Francisco quake of 1906. The last one woke people in New York City. And suppose these killed 100,000 Midwesterners instantly, and forced more than 7 million people out of their homes, as estimated in a recent simulation.
Except for a few extreme libertarians, we would want the federal government to respond vigorously—and spend a lot of money helping families and communities get back on their feet. We would not want them checking who had bought how much earthquake insurance in the free market. Of course we want the response to be well-run and not to waste money, but possible waste is no excuse to shirk our social responsibility, it’s only a reason to create a good government. Libertarian principles are simply immoral in such circumstances.
But consider flooding on a once in 30-year scale. Certainly, emergency relief should be provided, but for those who did not buy flood insurance, the government should not step in and pay for damage as if they had. This rewards and encourages a lack of responsibility. And this is not just a matter of rewarding those who didn’t buy insurance, the wrong policy will also encourage people to build houses where houses should not be built.
Note that taking care of earthquake victims is federal earthquake insurance. Worse yet, from a libertarian point of view, it is free, subsidized, federal earthquake insurance. And that’s the way it must be if it is going to work. We cannot expect all Midwesterners to pony up for FEMA earthquake insurance and then have FEMA checking everyone’s insurance papers before they help them.
The conclusion must be that simple-minded answers such as, “No government insurance,” or “Free insurance for everyone,” are worse than useless. We need government and we need good government. And that takes more than protest signs and sloganeering.