Americans are not generally regarded as fatalistic. Christianity, the prevalent religion in America, teaches that individuals possess free will and are therefore responsible for their actions. The nation was founded and shaped by immigrants intent on building new lives in which they — not oppressive governments, intolerant clerics or class distinctions — would determine their fates.
But every time the earth quakes, a hill slides, a river floods or a forest burns — events that occur with dismaying frequency in the West — America turns into a nation of passive fatalists.
"When it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go," a resident of the mud-buried Southern California town of La Conchita recently told a local reporter, summing up the sentiments of many in a state where natural hazards seem to lurk at every hand.
In the wake of the Jan. 10 landslide that killed 10 people and demolished 13 homes in the coastal hamlet of La Conchita, attention has been focused on a pair of related questions: Should residents whose homes escaped damage be allowed to reoccupy them? And if so, what steps should government take to protect them?
Similar questions arise in the wake of every fresh calamity involving natural forces. What degree of protection do public agencies owe farms and homes in floodplains? Should the lives of firefighters be placed at risk to protect vacation homes built in the midst or on the edge of flammable forests? Should property owners be allowed to rebuild after predictable disasters claim their homes?
In the case of La Conchita — and by extension, most places where natural forces pose considerable risk — the answers are: Let people live where they like, but take no extraordinary steps to protect them.
Although it is true that there is no such thing as a "risk-free" place to build homes, not all places are equally risky. It is preposterous to use the ubiquity of improbable risk as an excuse to deliberately build homes in places where the risk is obvious and high. Nevertheless, the cherished values of personal freedom and private property rights in the United States suggest a limited role for government in determining where and how people choose to live.
If people wish to occupy places where mud, fire, water or earthquakes periodically try to kill them, it is their right to do so, in the same way that it is their right to risk death or injury climbing mountains, surfing monster waves, or challenging treacherous whitewater in tiny plastic boats.
But there is a useful distinction to be made between allowing people to assume risk, and encouraging risky behavior by shifting nearly the entire cost of bad decisions from the individual to the general public.
If the residents of La Conchita (or other similarly threatened communities) want the hillside that threatens their town to be rendered safe by construction of a costly retaining wall, they should build it themselves. If they cannot afford to do so, then they cannot afford the true cost of living in that place. As there is no general public benefit to be gained by protecting their property, society is under no obligation to reduce their building costs by constructing protective structures at public expense.
The same goes for developers who wish to build homes in flood zones: If installing an expensive flood-protection system (and posting an insurance bond big enough to cover all potential damage should those precautions fail) makes the homes in that development too expensive to buy, then the project fails the most elemental test of the free market. That this test often is fudged by builders and shortsighted regulators does not make it inappropriate.
It is proper for a compassionate society to subsidize limited emergency support for all who suffer harm — accident victims, hypothermic hikers, beachgoers dragged under by rip currents — even when those injuries stem from errors in judgment.
But a distinction is possible between events of the moment and those that result from deliberate choices. Deciding where to build is not something that is determined by accident. It is rare for a genuinely unknown natural hazard to arise suddenly, and although the true potential severity of a known threat may be difficult to determine with precision, it is not difficult to estimate whether a danger exists.
It is one thing for a society to tolerate faulty judgment by some of its members. It is another to encourage poor choices by forcing the prudent to subsidize the reckless.