November 07, 2011

Just stand there

One of the most destructive political impulses in the world today is the conviction that every identifiable problem must be addressed by having the government, at the highest levels, do "something" about it: invade it or regulate it or outlaw it or subsidize it or bail it out.

Bryan Caplan calls this the "Activist's fallacy":

1. Something must be done
2. This is something
3. Therefore, this must be done.

As Northern Japan found out, you can spend billions of dollars building a "solution" to a known problem, only to see it completely fail. And in the process, exacerbate the original problem by creating a false sense of security.

NHK has been conducting interviews with survivors from these costal town (an abridged version was broadcast on PBS). One thing that becomes clear is that people who could see the coastline got away, while those behind the immense sea walls--that turned these villages into medieval walled fortresses--often had no idea what was going on.

TEPCO was certain the sea walls surrounding Fukushima Dai-ichi couldn't be breached. The situation might have turned out completely differently had they built the plant with the assumption that a tsunami would flood the plant. The solution in that case--more redundancy in the backup power systems--would have been far more effective.

A Nightly Business Report (October 04, 2011) story from the fishing village of Kesennuma represents the kind of thinking that's too often missing when the gears of government begin to grind. Instead of fighting nature, the new Kesennuma wants to forgo the massive sea walls.

Especially because we want to draw more tourists, building a wall to block off the sea is out of the question. Tsunami are a natural phenomenon. There's one major tsunami every few centuries. So you insure yourself and figure out how to make it safe to live and work around them.

As correspondent Lucy Craft points out, "Even huge tsunami waves couldn't topple most of the concrete-reinforced shops in downtown Kesennuma and floodwaters rose no higher than the second story."

As it has turned out since, some large structures failed because they paradoxically became boyant. In other words, the basement levels and first floors of coastal buildings should be designed to "fail" and flood, not remain watertight and trap air.

This is another good example of drawing the line--between a storm surge and a tsunami--when it comes to confronting nature. And we really need to start drawing those lines. Rather than acting, Congress needs to learn when to sit on its hands. Don't do anything, just stand there!

Don't (re)build cities below sea level. Don't build suburbs in flood plains. Don't reinsure people who build seaside houses in the path of hurricanes. Quit lining every waterway with levees. We don't live in freaking Holland! (Oh, and don't give home and student loans to people who can't possibly ever repay them.)

Whether a bank or a flood wall or that latest Keynsian extravaganza, if it's "too big to fail," then the faster it fails the better. We'll pick up the pieces (the smaller they are, the easier to pick up), learn from our mistakes, learn to live with what we can't actually change or realistically prevent, and move on.

Related posts

Apocalypse not now
The Sendai earthquake

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# posted by Anonymous Dan
11/09/2011 5:22 AM   
The 19th century French economist Bastiat makes the poignant and timeless argument against government activism. In response to all that government fails to accomplish today he might, if it was possible for him to address us, declare, "As I was saying ..."
The socialists who have invented these follies, and who in days of distress plant them in the minds of the masses, generously confer on themselves the title of "forward-looking" men, and there is a real danger that usage, that tyrant of language, will ratify both the word and the judgment it implies. "Forward-looking" assumes that these gentlemen can see ahead much further than ordinary people; that their only fault is to be too much in advance of their century; and that, if the time has not yet arrived when certain private services, allegedly parasitical, can be eliminated, the fault is with the public, which is far behind socialism. To my mind and knowledge, it is the contrary that is true, and I do not know to what barbaric century we should have to return to find on this point a level of understanding comparable to that of the socialists.

The more one examines these "forward-looking" schools of thought, the more one is convinced that at bottom they rest on nothing but ignorance proclaiming itself infallible and demanding despotic power in the name of this infallibility.