"History is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind." ~ Edward Gibbon
Aquacalypse Now: Some Reflections on Tropical Storm Irene in Vermont
Column by Alex R. Knight III
Exclusive to STR
Good night, Irene. And good night, as well, to any number of roads, storm drains, bridges, businesses, and homes here in Vermont and some surrounding environs. In a roughly 24-hour period on August 28th, the landscape of the Green Mountains was radically transformed. It will be weeks and months before any semblance of full normalcy is restored, and some things have been altered or obliterated forever. Such is the nature of natural disasters.
Would, however, that the political and philosophical environment of Vermont could be so unconditionally transmogrified in a single deluge of enlightened information. Alas, it is not so easy to penetrate human minds. There is much more work to be done. That said, I have had ample time in the midst of this recent fiasco to make some positive and inspiring observations:
When the roads went out (and anyone who wants to visit my Facebook page can see just a few examples of what things looked like the next morning just from my immediate vicinity), the very first people who got active repairing them were not government workers but local private contractors – excavators and construction firms – using their own privately held equipment. I’m not saying that some measure of human charity was not involved, but foremost, these folks had a tremendous incentive to get the roads back in at least operable order: If they can’t get out to their jobsites, they lose money. State and other government workers, on the other hand, still draw checks at taxpayer expense whether or not a single thing gets fixed. In fact, throughout the entire initial wave of the ordeal, I saw precisely two state trucks out and about, and one local government truck. Most of them appeared to be doing little more than driving around aimlessly, or else small crews of them stood around at the entrance to closed-off roads, waving vehicle traffic away when cars approached. Again, it was private enterprise that performed the lion’s share of the work. As well, private companies like Central Vermont Public Service and Fairpoint Communications got the electricity back up and running after only a few short days (not at all bad, given the level of destruction), and I never lost telephone service at all. Fairpoint kept its various sub-stations (not the correct word, I know, but I’m not a telephone guy) operating with gas-powered 17-kilowatt generators. And neighbors pulled together, offering each other the use of their land, tools, and cooking fuel. My own neighbors let me go over and take pails of water out of their pond so I could flush the john. They offered to also let me cook on their propane grill (I ended up having enough charcoal and nice weather to get me through). My own preparedness also paid off: I had a houseful of food, water, and other provisions well before Irene was even perceived as a threat. A lot of uninitiated people thought I was nuts. I’m sure they’re eating some humble pie now (though I hope they’re all okay).
One surreal scene among the many that stand out since this saga began was when I was at the small rural post office in my area getting the (government monopolized) mail. The skies had been full of helicopters – again, mostly private – surveying the damage from above. We were then treated to a scene from Afghanistan: A National Guard Chinook chopper (a.k.a., a sky crane, with two sets of rotors), swooped over us at an altitude of no more than maybe 50 feet. A few moments later, driving my way home over a partially patched and still rubble-strewn road, I saw why they’d come. In the middle of a field nearby, they’d dropped a few dozen cases of bottled water to presumably be collected and distributed at the (government monopolized) fire station. But I’d just been to the local general store. In preparation for the forthcoming Labor Day weekend, the owner had stockpiled his inventory. There was bottled water to be had aplenty at very little cost. How much had been stolen from taxpayers to finance the Guard’s superfluous delivery? The beat goes on until society decides we’ve had enough.
Look, in no way am I trying to say that there are not government employees out there who worked hard, and put their all into helping people and getting the job done. What I am hopefully exposing is the real-life difference between how voluntary and market-based solutions soar head-and-shoulders above coercive, violence-based government ineptness. It’s often systems that are at fault, not always the people who man them. Nowhere in my own personal experience was that more evident than here of late in Vermont. For all of you doubters out there, you Paul Krugman and Ben Bernanke fans, I suggest you take a few moments to reassess your views of just what government is, how it operates, and what it really does.