Disaster preparedness: Nanny State or respect for citizen choice?

One of the more interesting exchanges of the video news conference on a national all-hazards warning system for Sri Lanka held on the 10th of February was off the subject: a journalist asked the international participants (video linked from Hilo, Hawai’i and Vancouver, Canada) whether there were uniform 100 or 200 meter no-building zones in their countries (both the Hawai’ian islands and the west coast of Canada are vulnerable to tsunamis).

The answer from Canada was that the demarcation of tsunami-prone areas was an iterative process that involved “hard” scientists who provided data on the likelihood of hazards and local officials who provided socio-economic data; all demarcations were site-specific; there were no uniform “no-go” zones.

The answer from Hawai’i built on that. Professor George Curtis said that the hazard mapping was just that; information for the potential users of the coast.

If your land happened to be on the wrong side of the line, you could not get insurance (or it would be very expensive); but the government would not prevent you from building or making other economic use of private property.

There was a 15 meter limit that was simply intended to keep the beaches clear. The government required adherence to appropriate construction standards and the existence of acceptable disaster-preparedness and evacuation plans, in the case of structures such as hotels, where the decisions of the hotel owner could affect the lives of third parties, the guests.

Both answers hinged on the fundamental premise of trade-offs and choices.

There were dangers from tsunamis, but they had to be balanced against private property and the interest in exploiting beachfront land to generate economic value.

In Hawai’i, the issue was very clearly set out. The government did not prohibit you from doing things, even for you could be acting against your own best interest.

The market was provided with information and the various actors had to make their own decisions.

The insurance industry could decide whether to insure or not, and what premiums to charge.

The property owner could decide whether to build or not, based on scientific data provided by the government and the insurance cover that could be obtained.

He could, theoretically, choose to build, even if insurance cover was refused.

On persons constructing buildings that had some degree of public purpose such as hotels (where the potentially affected parties, the guests, did not have the information the hotel owner had when he made the decision to build), the government imposed requirements such as building standards and disaster preparedness.

These conditions could also affect the kinds of insurance cover that was available and the premiums; i.e., with the necessary safeguards in place, the insurance would be available or lower in cost.

Clearly, the government in the above case is treating its citizens and firms with respect as adults.

The kinds of outright, uniform prohibitions like the 100/200 meter no-buildings rule (imposed supposedly for the good of the people) are symptomatic of a Nanny State that thinks of its citizens as babies who cannot make decisions, even in their own interest.

Another characteristic of a Nanny is that she does not necessarily tell you (the baby) the truth.

After all, she is all knowing and is doing it for your own good.

She can announce an outright, absolute prohibition today and then change her mind, on a case-by-case basis, tomorrow.

So it is possible that the Nanny State will prohibit poor people from building houses close to the sea in 2005, but would allow rich people to construct beach cottages that meet the appropriate standards, in 2006, or hotels in 2007.

The Nanny reserves the right to change her mind; it is not for the ordinary citizen to ask why.

So the choice, in the end, is about what kind of state we want to live under: a centralized Nanny State that makes arbitrary decisions (the 100/200 meter rule is not based on scientific evidence and is therefore arbitrary), or a state that provides all economic actors including the poor the necessary information for the making of decisions that are in their best interest.

It is shortsighted to focus instead on the ways in which the Nanny State can be induced to make exceptions to the arbitrary and uniform rule.

-Rohan Samarajiva: samarajiva@lirne.net