Because I am a philosopher, I am sometimes accused of “not getting” the “real world.” That is, people who disagree with me sometimes like to take the intellectual shortcut of accusing me of not getting it rather than actually presenting developed arguments showing that I am in error.
Despite being accused of being detached from the “real world”, I actually consider reality to be an excellent source of evidence for discussing philosophical concerns, such as the legitimate role of the state.
Not surprisingly, the legitimate role of the state is often an issue in presidential elections and the 2012 election was no exception. The Republicans put forth the general idea that government is not the solution. There was also the stock tactic of presenting government as both ineffective and undesirable. One interesting addition was the explicit Tea Party twist of an Ayn Rand attack on the demon of collectivism. In sum, the Republican Party presented the government as an evil to be reduced and collective action as undesirable. Then Sandy hit the east coast of the United States.
Despite the political ideology expressed by the Republicans, there has been no opposition to the government stepping in to take collectivist actions. Republican Governor Chris Christie (who spoke passionately against Obama at the RNC) praised Obama’s leadership in bringing the state into the rescue and recovery operations. Christie himself made it clear that the state has a clear role to play in the recovery. Christie and Obama are right about the importance of the state in such disasters. After all, it requires collective action to address a problem of this magnitude and the private sector alone cannot handle the problems. On the face of it, disasters like Sandy provide considerable evidence against the Republican attacks on the state and collective action.
An obvious reply is that while the Republicans have been critical of the state and collectivism, they can claim that they believe the state has a legitimate role to play in disasters while still being able to hold to their criticisms of the state and collectivism. That is, they can take the collective response by the state to Sandy as legitimate government activity while still painting other activities, such as student loans and welfare, as socialism.
While this reply has some appeal, it is reasonable to dig a bit deeper and look at the underlying principle at work.
In the case of a natural disaster, many people are put in danger and are in need through no fault of their own. Of course, people sometimes are partially responsible—by staying when an evacuation order has been given, for example. This can be taken as justifying the collective action of the state. To be specific, the scale of the disaster and its nature requires a collective response by the state because it is beyond the capabilities of individuals acting on their own and even beyond the capabilities of the private sector to handle. Also, the fact that the disaster has struck people through (in general) no fault of their own also serves to justify state intervention even for those who might otherwise be opposed to the state assisting people. After all, one might contend, it is one thing for a person to simply expect the state to give them free stuff and another for them to be given aid in the context of a disaster like Sandy—even if this includes “free stuff.”
As such, a reasonable principle to justify state intervention in a disaster would be that the state has a legitimate role in addressing large scale disasters that arise through no (or perhaps even partial) fault of those who are harmed by the disaster. This principle would thus justify the collective action taken by the state in response to Sandy.
However, the principle would also seem to justify collective action by the state in other cases as well. For example, the economic “storm” that damaged the economy was a man-made disaster, but it was widespread and hurt many people through no (or at most partial) fault of their own. That is, millions of people were victims of an economic disaster that is ongoing. As such, the collective response by the state can be justified in general by this same principle. Interestingly, the general harms caused by the economic system (such as unemployment, low wages, environmental costs and other endemic harms) could also justify collective intervention by the state to mitigate them. After all, people who are homeless because the economy tanked are no less homeless than people who lost their homes to Sandy or other storm.
The obvious objection is, of course, that there is a difference between man-made disasters and natural disasters. As such, it could be argued that the state can legitimately intervene in the case of a natural disaster like Sandy but to intervene in man-made disasters would be unjustified.
The obvious problem with this objection is that it would entail that the state would have no legitimate role in defending citizens from enemies foreign or domestic. That is, the state would have no justification in regards to the military or police functions. After all, they exist to respond to man-made harms on both the small and the large scale.
It could be objected that the state has a legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people using force, violence, fraud (or other criminal means) but no legitimate role in responding to harms caused by people acting within the existing laws. So, if someone blows up your house, then the state has a legitimate role in addressing the problem. If the economy is wrecked by other people via legal means and you lose your home, then you are on your own.
While this distinction might have some appeal, it also seems rather absurd. After all, the legality of the actions that cost you your house seem to be outweighed by the fact that you lost your house due to harms inflicted by others. As such, whether a natural disaster or financial shenanigans beyond your control cost you your house you would still be a victim who deserves aid. Naturally, it would be rather another matter when the disaster is self-inflicted. If I lose my house because I quit my job out of laziness, then the fault is my own and the state owes me nothing beyond what I have earned.
In sum, if the state has a legitimate role to play in addressing natural disasters like Sandy, it also has a role in addressing man-made disasters, such as the current economic system.