Natural disasters and state assistance. Does the government have a role in helping people whose homes have been destroyed or severly damaged in a natural disaster? I was reminded of this issue by a 6.5 earthquake that hit this last weekend just twenty miles from where I live, knocking over bookshelves and CD racks. As natural disasters go, this one was very minor—hardly even worth troubling about. But it could easily have been much worse. Forty miles to the south three massive plates come together, creating tensions that could spill over into moster quakes. Twenty years ago the area generated a 7.0 quake; yet it is fully capable of generating quakes comparable to the Anchorage and Indian Ocean quakes.
The destructive capacity of nature is immense. Whether it's earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, floods, these events can devestate entire communities. Yet oddly, Rand and her disciples have very little to say about these "Black Swan" events (to borrow Nassim Taleb's terminology). One could imagine Rand criticizing the mere mention of them as evincing a "malevolent" sense of life. After all, they don't happen all that often: so why dwell on them?
Although they are not an everyday occurence (at least in any given locality), nonetheless they do happen; and most people have a fairly strong conviction that the government has a role in assisting the victims of catastrophic natural disasters. Claiming the state has no role is a hard sell. Why should the state do nothing? It is precisely in a catastrophic disaster that collective action governed by strong leadership becomes advantageous. To oppose such action appears to be mere obstinacy, with neither wisdom nor good sense in support of it.
It is here that Rand's principle-centric approach gets her into trouble. Principles, for Rand, are invioble "absolutes." Only an individual suffering from an "anti-conceptual mentality" would approve of violating a principle. Yet this view of things presupposes an orderly, linear, "logical" universe; it assumes that the non-linear, the disorderly, the non-logical either doesn't exist or is "non-essential." Such assumptions, however, go against facts that confront us in everyday life and in history. As Nassim Taleb reminds us, "the world is more nonlinear than we think, [or] than scientists [and Rand] would like to think.... Linear relationships are truly the exception; we only focus on them in classrooms and textbooks because they are easier to understand." Principles that work fine under ordinary circumstances often break down under exceptional circumstances. Hence wisdom counsels flexibility. When confronted by a rare, extremely impactful event, the individual may need to improvise. Obstinacy on behalf of one's principles, far from being a mark of intelligence and "rationality," merely demonstrates an inability to adapt to new circumstances.