The city of Galveston, Texas, has asked Congress for $2.2 billion to repair hurricane damage to the island city’s port, rebuild infrastructure and housing, restore beaches and give grants to small businesses.
It has become traditional, of course, for Congress to appear generous in such instances by appropriating large sums of other peoples’ money in the wake of natural disasters. But it’s still worth asking whether it is justifiable or wise.
Anybody who has spent much time watching the History Channel or the Weather Channel knows that Galveston (and other cities similarly situated) is perennially subject to severe damage from hurricanes. Galveston has been virtually flattened and rebuilt several times.
You can see that as a tribute to the indefatigable human spirit, an example of the willingness to come back in the face of disaster, and there’s something to that. But it’s still worth asking: Do those who choose to live in areas subject to hurricanes every few years deserve to be made whole by those who do not choose to live in such vulnerable places? Are those who live elsewhere obligated to bail out those who make riskier choices?
We would never argue that people should be forbidden to live in inherently dangerous places like Galveston. But people who make choices should be prepared to live with the consequences of their choices. And when one knows that taxpayers in Iowa, Maine, Oregon and New Mexico will be forced to pony up when the utterly predictable occurs, it encourages people to make riskier choices.
It might seem churlish to complain about $2.2 billion for Galveston when Congress is considering a $700 billion bailout of investment bankers and mortgage bundlers who made riskier choices than they should have and now want somebody else to pay for the consequences. But the principle is similar.
Of course, people should be free to do any risky or dangerous thing they choose, from rock climbing to living in flood plains or hurricane zones to riding motorcycles without a helmet to investing in mortgage-backed securities that might be subject to bursting bubbles.
But when things go badly, when the risks manifest themselves, those people should be prepared to suffer the consequences themselves without requiring those who didn’t take such risks to suffer instead.