Brock Lorber

More About: Philosophy of Liberty

The State of Perpetual Emergency

The standard government response to exigent circumstances takes one of two forms:

1) In order to prevent A, we must do A.
2) In order to accomplish B, we must do not-B.

Both responses are clearly contradictory, but go largely unchallenged.  The seeming presumption is that, faced with an emergency, humans reject their uniquely-defining morals, ethics, subjective values, and, especially, deductive reasoning.  Therefore, emergency government actions may also reject these human concepts and the contradictions become moot.

But, as these characteristics define a human and give his frail body a comparative advantage over the hostile environment of nature, the human response to emergency should be a magnification of the importance of these inputs to decision making, not rejection.

That is not to say that human reasoning is infallible and will always triumph against nature.  The curse of reason is that we are born with very little innate knowledge.  Without instruction or prior experience, a man's wits are his only protection in an unfamiliar environment.  Also, charitably, humans are optimistic when it comes to judging risk and therefore tend to underestimate the benefits of emergency preparedness and planning.

The assumptions behind having government do anything in an emergency situation now lie naked before you:

A) People who underestimate preparedness and planning elect people to appoint people to undertake emergency preparedness and planning.
B) Those people do not underestimate preparedness and planning.
C) In an emergency, those people will retain reasoning behavior while everyone else reverts to animalism.
D) By virtue of their experience and instruction they have received, those people are qualified to supplant their morals, ethics, subjective values, and especially deductive reasoning for the unnamed populace.

No honest evaluation of assumptions A-C could possibly conclude that they could be true.  The idea that there exist among us superhuman beings and that, as if by magic, they are all currently appointed or elected government emergency planners is ludicrous.  However, a government emergency planner could be more experienced and/or learned in emergency planning and operations than, say, the owner of the corner gas station, so we must take a closer look at assumption D.

Imagine Government Emergency Evacuation Plan I, written, edited, vetted, and exercised in non-exigent circumstances.  The goals of Plan I would be continuity of government, protection of human life, and protection of property, in that order.  To those ends, Plan I would list the actions to be undertaken by various agencies and personnel upon plan activation.

As an emergency plan, Plan I would have, as one of its tenants, reliance on in-place stocks for initial operations.  As an evacuation plan, one of the in-place stocks necessary to execution would be fuel for evacuating vehicles.  Rather than stockpile millions of gallons of gasoline for every family truckster leaving the evacuation area, Plan I would, sensibly, rely on commercial gas stations and private stocks to fuel non-government vehicles.

Not surprisingly, with all the local families needing fuel for their minivans to leave the evacuation area, and fuel trucks prevented from entering the evacuation area, fuel is in high demand and supplies are limited. The basic law of supply and demand predicts an increase in fuel prices, therefore, also unsurprising.  Invariably, government enacts response #1, preventing A by doing A.

To prevent Mr. Jones from undervaluing his dollars with respect to gasoline, in the name of preventing price gouging the government forces Mr. Smith to undervalue his gasoline with respect to dollars.  With no incentive for Mr. Jones to conservatively purchase fuel, and no incentive for Mr. Smith to sell gasoline that will cost him more to replace, government response #1 guarantees a quick and lasting shortage of gasoline in the evacuation area.

By failing to properly account for the subjective valuations of Mr. Jones and Mr. Smith, Government Plan I fails in its reliance on in-place stocks.  This failure is evident at the moment government response #1 is enacted.

Oh, but it's worse than that.  As high demand and limited supply of gasoline are wholly unsurprising, Government Plan I likely includes, as one of its agency actions, government response #1 as part of its reliance on in-place stocks.  In other words, to ensure the availability of gasoline, Plan I calls for an action ensuring a shortage of gasoline (government response #2).

Our not-so-imaginary Government Evacuation Plan I, developed in non-exigent circumstances by our supposed learned and/or experienced government emergency planners, is a plan to fail*.  Since they cannot even plan reasonably, there is no reason to believe that, in an actual emergency, they will discover their senses and thus have some moral, ethical, reasoned superiority over other individuals responding to emergency conditions in their own way.

Emergencies Everywhere
Having taken that trip to demonstrate that a government effectively responding to an emergency fails on first principles, I must regretfully inform you that politicians and bureaucrats nevertheless insist on emergency authority.  Shocking, isn't it?

What is shocking is that people grant and defer to that authority.  It may be a herd mentality, or perhaps fear of being shot by someone who has declared their superiority; whatever it is, people are amazingly willing to surrender their humanity to any clown with an emergency services baseball cap.  Someone yells, "I'm in charge here," and everyone around him immediately relaxes their normal intellectual standards.

Think of the awesome power of the person in charge of emergency response.  There's no time to argue, it's an emergency.  We can't wait for all the details, it's an emergency.  Do as I say and we'll talk about it later.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

Don't think for a moment that emergency power isn't like an open flame to political and bureaucratic mothmen.

Sure we can torture; there's a ticking time bomb.  We don't have time to debate this PATRIOT Act or that $787 billion bailout, we're responding to a crisis.  We must have this emergency appropriation to continue this war into its eighth year.  12,000 deaths in two years is a small price to pay in this war on drugs.  Emergency flu shots for everyone.  My god man!  Don't you realize we're in the middle of a GLOBAL ECONOMIC MELTDOWN?

The phenomenon of treating everything as an emergency is familiar and well understood.  Many, many business organizations and government agencies have fallen into the trap of reacting to emergencies as a normal course of business.  It is very destructive behavior, and easily recognized – from without.

Within the organization, perpetual crisis mode is alluring because of the perception of relaxed moral, ethical, and intellectual standards.  But, it is very taxing on human and capital resources.  Perpetual crisis mode is symptomatic of an actual crisis: a crisis of leadership.  If the leaders do not recognize the problem and rigidly enforce intellectual standards, the organization will eventually self-destruct.

Your Emergency Plan
With government as a whole, the "leaders" who must recognize the destructive behavior are the individuals comprising the body politic.  After all, it is their labor and resources that are being taxed.  If these individuals wish to end the cycle of perpetual crisis, they must rigidly enforce moral, ethical, and intellectual standards, first within themselves.

It does absolutely no good to "vote the bastards out" if you retain the same relaxed standards you used to vote the bastards in.

At this point the pragmatist and realist are both busy rationalizing, "if I raise my standards and the majority of the electorate doesn't, I'll fall on my sword of principle!"  That is why, as a second step to ending the perpetual crisis mode, you must also withhold your consent and your resources until such time as the government operates in accordance with your higher intellectual standards.

Or, you can keep doing as you have been, with one small data point in mind.  The US Federal Government, which operated through most of the 20th century under declarations of national emergency, has been operating under a continuous declaration of national emergency by executive order since 1979.

* Could Plan I exist without government response #1 and #2?  Sure.  You just have to know the fuel levels of all family trucksters and corner gas stations at the time of the emergency with enough prior notice to have extra fuel delivered AND know the amount of cash all those families could bring to bear on filling the family truckster with fuel.

Or, you could allow the price system to ration fuel between consenting actors at the time they actually know that information.  That negates a government emergency response, so I didn't take the time to explore it here.

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