A Philosopher's Blog

Sandy & Socialism

Posted in Environment, Ethics, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2012

Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.

Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.

Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.

Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.

An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.

While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.

In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”

As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.

However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.

The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.

The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.

It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.

While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.

In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.

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16 Responses

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  1. Quote for the day | Civil Commotion said, on October 31, 2012 at 5:39 am

    [...] Michael LaBossiere [...]

  2. magus71 said, on October 31, 2012 at 6:13 am

    “collective action as undesirable.”

    Complete misrepresentation of the facts. Conservatism promotes “high trust society”. Look it up.

    • T. J. Babson said, on October 31, 2012 at 7:39 am

      Nice video. Sowell is fantastic.

  3. T. J. Babson said, on October 31, 2012 at 6:59 am

    What if the government caused the economic disaster? Is the solution even more government?

  4. T. J. Babson said, on October 31, 2012 at 7:08 am

    Is Mike really worried that we might make the government too small? It has been all but impossible to stop the growth of government–all anybody is asking is to slow down the rate of growth so that the US does not go bankrupt.

  5. WTP said, on October 31, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Yet another of Mike’s posts I can’t make my way through. The very premise is nauseating.
    How can one teach “ethics” and at the same time misrepresent, exaggerate, and make straw men of opposing points of view. I mean, just look at these sentences:

    In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.

    Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions.

    The only truth here is “Sandy hit the east coast of the United States”. This would be akin to saying the Democratic Party presents government as the solution to every problem and the individual as undesirable. There is no part, nor has there ever been a part of the Republican Party platform that said that government does not have a role in emergency operations. I could go on and on but I just don’t have the stomach for it. This is certainly not the post of someone who is living in the real world, nor should someone be teaching ethics if they are this disconnected with the philosophies of those living in the real world.

  6. T. J. Babson said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I think this is one of those “chumming” posts Mike occasionally throws out to get us riled up.

    • magus71 said, on October 31, 2012 at 8:55 am

      Absolutely. it’s also payback for the Benghazi fiasco, because he knows his tribe did wrong.

      • WTP said, on October 31, 2012 at 9:04 am

        I’d say it’s more of an attempt at indirection/distraction. Wouldn’t want to discuss the glaring problems with the whole Benghazi story for too long. Mike functions much like an MSM outlet.

      • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

        I don’t have a tribe, I have a country.

    • biomass2 said, on October 31, 2012 at 9:39 am

      You’re absolutely right, TJ. He’s seen how easy it is to “bug” people who can be aggravated by something like a screen ID change. Just unleash a “bee”, and it’ll easily find an orifice to crawl into.
      Excuse the preposition there. There are still people who get irritated at the sight of a preposition at the end of a sentence.

      Note to magus71: I was tempted to post this as you, magus71 :) , just to provoke you even more. But I’ll just reassure you once more that I wasn’t posting as WTP and I’ve never posted as Norm or norm. Just repeat the following every morning with your donut and beer: “Those who post here with ideas like biomass’ are not biomass.” Donuts contain important vitamins and minerals to develop brain power. As Homer said: “Ah, donuts! What can’t they do?”
      And theeer? Well, it’s alcohol after all. Four six-packs/day are good for a pre-teen boy or girl. Or a pregnant mother. Right?

      • biomass2 said, on October 31, 2012 at 12:04 pm

        magus: Corrections to your suggested mantra: “Those who post here with ideas like those of biomass2 are not necessarily biomass2. ”
        We all know I had other screen names here in the past. But, as they say in the mutual fund world “Past performance in no indicator of future returns [make that 'actions']“. And, I’ll remind you once more that having and stating views similar to views of others does not make one identical to the other. And blah blah blah

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on November 1, 2012 at 12:28 pm

      Almost anything I write seems to chum the waters.

  7. WTP said, on November 4, 2012 at 9:36 am

    Peirs Morgan on the performance of a “public benefit corporation” (i.e. quasi-socialist organization)

    http://piersmorgan.blogs.cnn.com/2012/10/31/michael-moore-on-climate-change-and-superstorm-sandy-this-is-going-to-set-the-precedent/

    BTW, all those fire trucks, generators, water trucks, and power grids…Who built that?

    • biomass2 said, on November 4, 2012 at 10:48 pm

      Context is always helpful. Here’s context from Obama’s statement.

      “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet.

      The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together. There are some things, just like fighting fires, we don’t do on our own. I mean, imagine if everybody had their own fire service. That would be a hard way to organize fighting fires.

      So we say to ourselves, ever since the founding of this country, you know what, there are some things we do better together. That’s how we funded the GI Bill. That’s how we created the middle class. That’s how we built the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam. That’s how we invented the Internet. That’s how we sent a man to the moon. We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president — because I still believe in that idea. You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”

      A few points considered separately:
      “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
      Context? “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. . .etc”

      “The point is , that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but ALSO because we do things together.” . . .etc.

      “We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people, and that’s the reason I’m running for president — because I still believe in that idea. . .You’re not on your own, we’re in this together.”
      I’m shocked, actually, that the loyal opposition didn’t pounce on this. I thought we are all individuals, on our own, dependent on none, responsible to none but ourselves. That’s the American way. . . .

      “Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive.”
      Nope. I started with nothing. I did it all by myself.

  8. WTP said, on November 4, 2012 at 9:10 pm

    What good is government that doesn’t even trust government…

    The mayor disagreed with Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz’s call for a bigger National Guard presence in the borough.
    “The NYPD is the only people we want on the street with guns,” Bloomberg said.

    Read more: http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/president-vows-sandy-victims-article-1.1195362#ixzz2BJ2b0BR3

    Meanwhile, residents are forming their own organizations and fending for themselves…

    http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/queens/queens-residents-arm-looters-article-1.1196031


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