Thursday, May 6, 2010

Flooding and Freedom

The Harris County Flood Control District (HCFCD) is currently buying out home owners along Hunting Bayou as a part of a $175 million project. Many of the home owners are reluctant to sell, with some having lived in their home for nearly fifty years. As the Chronicle puts it:
It is the personal side of the Flood Control District's own dilemma: inconveniencing a few for the benefit of many. 
On the surface, this might seem reasonable. The paper reports that the neighborhood around the bayou has experienced flooding in 1979, 1980, 1983, 1989, 1993, 1994, 1997, 1998, 2006 and 2007. Bribing a few home owners to move for the purpose of deepening and widening the bayou might save the remaining homes from flooding. But there is nothing reasonable about this particular situation, or the HCFCD in general.

If someone chooses to live in an area that floods, they should bear the consequences of their decisions. They should not expect others (read taxpayers) to pay for repairs. They should not expect taxpayers to pay for flood control. (The same applies to those with homes along the beach.) Individuals have a right to live where they choose; they do not have a right to force others to bear the costs.

Some argue that flood control is a proper function of government, that without government no individual or business would undertake such a massive project. Without government involvement, the argument goes, many more areas of the city would be prone to flooding. Such claims imply that the ends justify the means.

It is highly speculative to claim that absent government nobody would undertake flood control efforts. To make such a claim is to say that individuals do not value their property and will not take measures to protect it. There are more than 60 billion examples that this is not true--Americans voluntarily spend that many dollars each year on private security for the purpose of protecting their property.

I will not purport to have all of the answers on this issue. Flood control is a complex subject and it is not my expertise. But I am an expert on the application of property rights, and the recognition and protection of those rights has been demonstrated time after time to solve the most complex of problems. Recognizing the moral right of individuals to use their property as they choose, so long as they respect the mutual rights of others, often results in solutions that few can dream of.

As one example, consider Houston's underground tunnel system. The system connects dozens of downtown buildings, providing shopping, dining, and ease of travel. It was built entirely by private businesses, who worked together to create convenience for the tenants of their buildings and enhance the value of their properties. The tunnel system benefits the many, and inconveniences nobody.

Those who claim that we need government involved in flood control assume that, because they lack the vision to conceive of private solutions to flooding, such solutions cannot exist. Since they can't figure out how it would work, they conclude that nobody else can either. They are wrong. And when men are free, they can prove them so.


Mr. Moderate said...

Why are the property rights of the affected residents any more important than the property rights of the upstream property owners who are flooded through no fault of their own due to increased stream flow from developments yet further upstream? Should the mid-Bayou residents try to sue to force the further upstream property owners to install retention ponds and other flood control devices, when it is not possible to determine which property is truly at fault?

How do you determine whose property rights are more important? Should the reluctance of a few be allowed to destroy the property of many?

You argue for free market solutions. The buyout is a free market solution with the government acting as an intermediary between groups of property owners.

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Moderate,
I will address your last point first. Government buyouts are not a free market solution. The money for the buyout is taken from taxpayers without their consent. There is nothing free about that.

Your questions are very good. Admittedly, it might seem like there is a conflict between the respective rights of the different property owners. But this "conflict" does not exist if one properly understands property rights.

I will address this in more detail on Monday. For now, suffice it to say that the operative principle is "first come, first served".