Monday, January 12, 2009

Sustainable Development

Sunday's Chronicle features an OpEd by Jim Blackburn, an environmental attorney practicing in Houston and professor of the practice of environmental law in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Rice University. Blackburn's article laments the lack of planning in the Houston-Galveston area, and he worries that future hurricanes are going to create more problems in the area.
What we need are bold initiatives that attempt to come to grips with a number of issues, including rising sea levels, the prospect of more severe and perhaps more frequent storm events, storm surges that easily can exceed 20 feet and rainfall events dumping 20 or more inches of rain in a 24 hour period. Oh, and we probably should figure on less money being available from the government in the future, given that Wall Street and the automobile makers have sucked the financial marrow remaining after Iraq.

Blackburn argues that we need more regulations limiting development along the coast, rather than continue to sink millions, or billions, of dollars into rebuilding storm ravaged areas. While acknowledging that Texans are not big fans of regulations, he wonders if "we have enough people living in hurricane evacuation zones". He obviously thinks we have too many, and he wants to use the coercive power of government to change that fact.
Do we really want to encourage rebuilding or new development in these hazard zones? Do we really want to put our money into infrastructure in these areas? Do we want to spend millions if not billions of dollars trying to settle areas that may simply be too dangerous for permanent residents?

Blackburn's argument is founded on statism-- government controls as the solution to every problem, real or imagined. He implies that government should be intimately involved in development, infrastructure, storm relief, etc. And since our government is running short on money, it is better to prohibit development along the coast and use the money elsewhere. The idea that maybe government shouldn't be involved in these issues is completely foreign to him.

The solution isn't to ban development, or set more stringent building codes, or anything of the sort. The solution is to get the government out of the way-- let the property owners make the decisions for rebuilding, and allow them to be responsible for the consequences.

If someone wishes to build on the coast, he should have the right to do so. But he should not have the right to force others to subsidize his insurance or rebuild his home after a storm. If he judges that the joy of owning a home on the coast is worth the risk, he should be allowed to act on his judgment. But he should not be allowed to force others to act against their judgment, that is, pay for the consequences of his decisions.

Blackburn thinks we should have a serious debate on this subject, about the only point on which I agree.
Our country does not have the financial reserves that we once did. We cannot afford to build and rebuild and rebuild yet again in the same place with the same result. I do not believe that the federal government will continue to bail us out for bad development thinking, for our lack of regulation, for our unwillingness to ask hard questions and find hard answers.

The questions are not all that hard. Why should individuals be prevented from pursuing their own values? Why should the judgment of government officials be imposed upon others? Why should all taxpayers be forced to subsidize the lives of those who build on the coast? Why do all "solutions" invariably involve more government power?

The answers aren't very difficult either. There is no valid reason that individuals should be prohibited from pursuing their values, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others. Individuals have a moral right to act according to their own judgment; they do not have a right to compel others to bail them out if their judgment is flawed or they don't like the results. More government controls are the inevitable "solution" when one embraces altruism/ collectivism.
Ultimately, we need a sustainable development concept for the Texas coast, one that is sound and safe, that will protect the residents, our social structure, our economic structure and our ecological structure. And the stakes are serious. We could easily see thousands of people killed and hundreds of billions of dollars in damage. Nothing less than the long-term economic future of our region is at stake.

Why is it necessary that we have a "development concept" that is "safe" and "will protect the residents"? If individuals want to engage in behavior that is not safe, why is that Blackburn's concern? More importantly, why does he think that he has a right to use coercion to keep them safe?

Blackburn doesn't explicitly say, but the only possible justification is altruism. Altruism holds that sacrifice is the standard of morality, that the individual must place the needs of others before his own needs and desires. The individual must act with the interests of others in mind, rather than his own interests. And those who refuse to do so "voluntarily" may properly be forced to do so.

Blackburn accepts the idea that government must be involved in every aspect of coastal developments--from infrastructure to rebuilding after storms. It is only proper for government to compel individuals to forgo their selfish desire to live on the coast. This will serve the "public interest" by saving money.

Saving thousands of lives and billions of dollars in damage might sound like a reasonable goal. But Blackburn's method is to use force to prohibit individuals from building on their property, pursuing their values, acting according to their own judgment. In short, he wants to save lives and money by ruining lives and dreams, and by destroying investments.

If Blackburn and his ilk really cared about human welfare they would be advocating greater individual freedom. They would be calling for fewer regulations, not more. They would be arguing for government to end insurance subsidies, which alone would likely curtail development along the coast. They would demand that coastal home owners bear the consequences of their decisions, rather than impose those decisions upon all tax payers.

Government intervention is a large part of the cause of coastal development. By offering below market insurance, the government encourages behavior that the market deems unreasonable. Then, in the aftermath of storms, the government further encourages such behavior by subsidizing recovery efforts. When those costs mushroom, many then respond by calling for more government intervention. But enacting more of the cause will not resolve a problem. It will give you more of the problem.

Government intervention distorts decision making. It can discourage or prohibit rational decisions, and encourage or require irrational decisions. The solution is to allow each individual to make his own decisions and accept the consequences.

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