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There Aren't Any Libertarians in a Buffalo Blizzard

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 11/27/14, Truthout 12/01/14

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We’re all familiar with the tired old meme, “there aren’t any atheists in foxholes” or lifeboats, or fill in the blank. But at the end of the day, really, there’s seldom any empirical evidence coming out of foxholes on the god or no god argument. More likely there aren’t any atheists on the front lines of wars because most wars today are rooted in religious feuds, leaving atheists home to watch the game, eat dinner or make love. While the atheist meme doesn’t really work unless you’re already prone to believe the unquantifiable, I think with a little twist, the basic linguistic device can work. Let’s try this out: There aren’t any libertarians in a Buffalo Blizzard. This is empirically quantifiable.

Now I’m employing a bit of artistic license here, using “any,” when I mean “many,” as one should always avoid absolutes in an argument. As in, given their proclivity to dogmatic idiocy, there will be a few. That said, the first time one asks, “Where the hell is the damn plow?,” they cease to be a libertarian. This is a simple binary. Do you want the government to rescue you, or not? There’s a simple rule of thumb here. When the snow covers your Ron Paul bumper sticker, it’s ok to ask big government to come and save your ass.

I know, I know. I’m an imbecile. I don’t know anything about Libertarians or libertarian philosophy. I get this hate mail every time I mention Ron or Rand Paul, and how the sociopathological selfishness they preach undermines the most basic fabric of human society. Humans, however, have survived and prospered on earth specifically because we help each other. When problems are catastrophic, lots of people need to band their resources together to aid those most in need. Coordinating this is one of the useful functions of government, as compared to, say, waging wars, which ironically, according to the current Libertarian Party platform, is one of the only legitimate functions of government and acceptable uses of government funds—though where these funds will come from is a mystery.

The Libertarian Party Platform also supports, “the repeal of the income tax” and “the abolishment of the Internal Revenue Service.” The government’s loss of the ability to raise money will be offset, according the platform, by eliminating “all federal programs and budgets not required under the U.S. Constitution,” which would include the Federal Emergency Management Agency, The Centers for Disease Control, the National Institute for Health and every other civilian federal agency that intercedes from time to time when the shit really hits the fan—in the form of, say, an epidemic of some hemorrhagic fever disease.

But let’s look more specifically at what libertarians have to say about local emergency services, like the 5,500 emergency personnel who showed up in snow-clogged areas of Western New York last week with hundreds of plows and high lifts to dig communities out of mountains of snow, or the firefighters and police who rescued stranded motorists from their cars, or delivered essential medications to those whose homes were buried. Or how about the 50-plus boats that the state sent after the snow, before the first street was even flooded?

Outsourcing Heroes

As with the religious folks in the foxholes, libertarians also have their holy books. When it comes to looking at the role of local government, one of their holiest texts is, Local Problems, Libertarian Solutions, by William Burt. This vintage 1970s classic was published by the Libertarian Party in the same era when they ran oil exec Ed Clark for president and David Koch (yes, that David Koch) for vice president.

Regarding emergencies, such as the ongoing one in Buffalo, the book quotes the chief of a privatized Rural/Metro Inc. firefighting business, simply stating, “We can’t afford professional heroes.” I don’t really get the point, as his profiteers are still, theoretically, professional, and I certainly hope they’re willing to be heroes. But Burt goes on to write, “The Libertarian program is to remove exclusive franchises and tax-funded subsidies, and to require emergency service organizations to seek revenue from voluntary customers.” Now picture South Buffalo and surrounding areas under seven feet of snow—rich with “voluntary customers.”

Fast forward to today’s interpretation of Burt’s work via the Libertarian’s Forum, where one Scottish libertarian explains, “Saying that only government and the state can provide emergency services is kind of like saying large scale intensive agriculture can only work under slavery.” The analogy, which I’ve heard many times from libertarians, is that if we pay taxes, we’re slaves. Or more specifically, like slaves in the antebellum South, beaten, raped and worked to death on agricultural plantations. The alternative, the writer suggests, is freeing up our tax dollars so we can spend them in some more productive manner, “like hiring companies to search for survivors.”

Fee-Based Rescue

Keith Olbermann, when he was on MSNBC back in 2010, highlighted one such story about fee-based emergency services, reporting about firefighters in Tennessee who watched a home burn down because its occupants didn’t pay their fire-fighting fee. Or last November’s story from Arizona, which is now a test ground for failing libertarian experiments. There, a private fire response company billed home owners $18,825 for fire-fighting services at a house that burned to the ground under their watch. This is the same approach the Libertarian Party Platform suggests for education and health care, arguing that you can buy better services on the open market—that is, if you are among the privileged few who can afford them.

Back here in Buffalo we watched as our “tax and spend” big New York government saved lives sending hundreds of heavy duty plows, bucket loaders and dump trucks, and thousands of trained and experienced public servants to work around the clock opening roads, freeing trapped residents and creating access for other emergency services.

I understand that utopian libertarian philosophy states that we shouldn’t need these services. We’ll just come together and help each other out when the shit hits the fan. This is the equivalent of religious zealots telling us not to worry, we’ll just come together and pray. Anarcosyndicalism does work, on a small scale. And prayer does calm the soul. But we need snowplows. And libertarian philosophy, while paying lip service to anarchism, actually supports corporatism, with the Libertarian Party line bowing to the gods of the free market, telling us to negotiate a deal for services.

Uber to the Rescue

So, let’s apply this to Western New York’s snow and flooding emergency. Imagine each and every household, no matter their wealth or lack of wealth, negotiating on the free market for emergency services such as, “please plow me a path to my workplace,” or, “please come help my mother. She just collapsed shoveling snow.” Maybe the hipster taxi service Uber can send a boat to pull you off your roof.

Of course, in the free market, demand might be a tad high and services in short supply during an emergency. The surge in demand for life-saving services, like any other product, will increase its value on the open market when a scarcity of supply exists. To understand how this might play out, let’s see how this works with a much less needed amenity such as a taxi ride. Uber, uses an app that automates the bidding on rides during peak usage periods such as Halloween. A few weeks ago, this resulted in, for example, a Denver passenger paying $539 for an 18-mile ride, and a New York City passenger forking over $363 for a 20-minute ride. So how much are you willing to pay to rescue your grandmother from a collapsing nursing home? Given that taxis in New York and Denver on Halloween are much more plentiful than private search and rescue teams in the heart of a blizzard, your bill might very well be more than your net worth.

Even with price gouging, assuming libertarian “regulatory reforms” remove the prohibition against such crimes, the calculus just isn’t there for private vendors to gear up for an emergency surge in demand. A storm like this only comes around every few decades. It doesn’t pay for any private company to create and idle response teams for decades, just to sell their service on the one week it is needed. The only business plan that works here is one that is designed to lose money—and save lives.

We call that business, “government.” And it’s our job to keep it honest and efficient—not to destroy it. And as human beings, we all pay taxes to support emergency services, whether or not the snow lands on our homes. That’s what it means to be part of a community. We help when we can, and others help us when we need them. Drinking the Ron and Rand Paul cool aid, or otherwise electing slash and burn right-wingers, means next time the snow falls, we’re fucked. 


Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at SUNY Buffalo State. His previous columns are at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.


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