Who should pay the bill for bad decisions?

It is time for a serious discussion about personal responsibility. At this point, I will warn the reader that some of my commentary may seem insensitive, but we need to to address the problem.

There have been a number of incidents in which people undertaking adventures in the wilderness (hiking, rock climbing, etc) have gotten into trouble and operations have had to be mounted to search for and rescue them. Typically, these involve government agencies (park service, police and even the military) expending significant public resources to overcome (often irresponsible) actions undertaken by individuals.

To some degree, such response is warranted. It is part of the social contract that the government will expend efforts to protect us. Recently, the family of a missing hiker called out the National Park Service “claiming not enough was done” in the search. The question is how much of the collective resources should be expended to mitigate bad decisions on the part of individuals.

Clearly, accidents happen, even on clearly marked trails designed for, and marketed as, recreational activities for the public. (Hiking trails on Roan Mountain are local examples). If the government establishes such facilities, it has an obligation to assist in the maintenance and safety of the participants it attracts. The flip side of that is the expectation that the citizenry will be reasonable and exercise common sense.

What responsibility should the government burden when people (for their own personal reasons) take off into the wild and undertake risky activity (e.g. free rock climbing)? The persons (ought to) understand the risks to their safety before they start. Those risks should fall predominantly on that individual, not on the collective, for bad outcomes. The burden of “cost” should likewise be borne by the individual.

I don’t necessarily have issue with a diligent response to mishaps. However, the growing demand for extraordinary efforts, ones that put responders at risk, is increasingly inappropriate.

Where do we draw the line? How much risk are we to demand of our government for the sake of someone’s erroneous decision? How much public resources should we expend to mitigate the risks others take?

Eight states have enacted laws allowing them to recoup rescue costs. Yet, even this does not cover the typically huge volunteer efforts involved.

There is an even more difficult problem. What degree of obligation should the government incur to protect people who are endangering themselves as they break the law? This issue has reached national headlines when a tragic picture emerged of a father and daughter who drowned while trying to enter the United States illegally. It is a heart-wrenching scene of the two laying together face-down in the water.

Who should shoulder the blame/responsibility? In a convoluted twist of logic, many of the Democratic Presidential candidates blame the US government. Beto O’Rourke has said, “Trump is responsible for these deaths.” The sentiment rest on the notion that because this administration has decided to enforce “existing” laws in providing more border security, it is responsible for forcing immigrants who are attempting to enter the country “illegally” to use more dangerous routes.

Wait a minute. The father initially chose to make a dangerous trip with a small child. The father chose to attempt to cross the river. Where in this equation is the US government responsible for the reckless acts of a person who is not even a citizen of the country, regardless of the motivations that prompted their action?

In a remarkably candid statement, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele said his country was to blame for the death of a father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande while trying to reach the US. “We can blame any other country but what about our blame? What country did they flee? Did they flee the United States? They fled El Salvador, they fled our country. It is our fault.” We may be able to cast blame about, but ultimately the responsibility for the consequences rest with the father as sad as that is to say.

The event is a tragedy, much as is the loss of lives of people crossing the Mediterranean Sea fleeing from Africa and the Middle East. However, at every step the refugees make conscious decisions, each with its inherent risks. They did (or should have) understood the nature and magnitude of those risks. In undertaking the trip (right from the outset), they have deliberately endangered themselves and their party. The burden of the outcome rests squarely on their shoulders.

This discussion has not addressed the underlying conditions that may propel people to take heavy risks to avoid a situation they find intolerable. Clearly, there are those fleeing persecution (and there is an asylum mechanism to address that situation). However, there are those who take disproportionate risks simply to better their personal economic condition. In fact, a significant number of the “refugees” are single males. This is perhaps understandable, but it does not transfer the risk of a bad outcome to a third party (i.e., the US government). Coincidently, the influx of economic refugees seeking asylum is a significant cause of overloading of the system. This further exacerbates the situation for the truly persecuted refugees.

There is even a “moral hazard” problem.  A moral hazard arises “when another person covers the costs of someone’s bad behavior, thereby providing little incentive for a person to take precautions that would mitigate any harmful consequences.” In other words, the more extreme efforts we take to ensure their safety, the more we increase the likelihood of people acting irresponsibly.

The two cases presented are significantly different. However, there is an important common thread: the conscious decision by an individual to incur (sometimes catastrophic) risk. That decision is personal. The outcome is likewise predominately attached to the decision-maker.

Truly, our government has an obligation to provide for the  safety of its citizens. It has an obligation to fulfill its end of the social contract, which in my opinion (as a small-government advocate), ought to be very limited.  The burden of bad outcomes directly attributable to the deliberate personal actions fall to the individual.

We are on a slippery slope in altering the social contract to make the government the all-powerful “nanny” responsible for the complete welfare of everybody (including those who are not citizens). This is bad public policy. Worse, it is morally reprehensible in that it motivates people to take risks for which they are unwilling or unable to pay the bill.

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