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Thursday, November 20, 2008

Worst case scenario: What would you do?

The New York Times Freakonomics blog recently published a feature in which they asked five professionals how they would response to a "worst case" scenario. The Freakonomics people defined the worst case scenario in the following way:

Imagine you just lost all your possessions and money, and you were suddenly living in the streets.

They asked their panel to answer the following questions:

1. What’s the first move you would make?

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

3. What would your extended plan look like?

The answers are pretty interesting. One of the quorum was Will Wilkinson, a libertarian philosopher now working for Cato (personal aside: mark my words, people like Wilkinson are the future of the libertarian movement, if it has one.) He wrote a little more about his response on his blog here.

Here's part of Wilkinson's very honest response:

I’m a Midwestern white guy with good manners and an excess of education. That is, I’m rich in human and cultural capital, and that gives me a safety net too few people have. Even if my one set of clothes was funky and filthy, it would be easy enough for a guy like me to approach strangers and get them to trust me. So that’s what I’d do; I’d politely ask sympathetic-looking strangers for some help, and I’d get it. That’s privilege.

Meanwhile, Ann Wroe, the obituary editor for the Economist gave a response that, at least in part, made me laugh out loud -- but only at first.

Assuming I hadn’t lost my wits (a big assumption), my first move would be to walk away from those streets, towards the sea or towards the woods. It’s easier to be empty there. The leaves or the waves would soothe me, as they always do, and I would try to reconcile myself to being stripped down to the essentials.

Thinking about it, Wroe's response isn't really that silly. Although wouldn't it get a little cold in the woods after a while? And what about -- I don't know -- bears?

Algonquin provincial park is a terrible place to be empty. Unless you're a bear. Then it's a great place to get full (by eating Ann Wroe.)*

Anyway, everyone in the quorum took it upon themselves to assume the option of turning to family and friends for assistance would be unavailable. That makes responding to the scenario more difficult.

So: what would you do in the worst case scenario? Remember: for whatever reason, turning to family and friends can't be the whole story. So where else would you turn?

My own thoughts are below.

Here's the thing: I don't know about the religious commitments, or lack thereof, of the people in the quorum, but I'm pretty sure none of them are deeply religious. Yet at least three of them mentioned that they would turn to faith-based organizations for assistance. I found this interesting, which is what led me to make this post in the first place.

While I'm not sure how I would response if placed in the worst-case scenario the quorum was discussing (and, let's be clear, we can imagine scenarios that would be much, much worse), I think that I would also seek out support from churches and the like.

In other words, if the worst struck, I'd turn to the Salvation Army, not the local chapter of American Atheists or the Ayn Rand Institute.

Why? Well, I know Christian organizations would probably help. That's part of the ethos of Christianity. It isn't that atheists, as individuals, can't be generous, but altruism isn't a ground-level principle of atheism. This makes sense, given that atheism isn't a philosophy.

To a large extent, my background is similar to Will Wilkinson's, but I'm not nearly as sanguine about the possibility of just demanding help from strangers and getting it. Christians, and, by extension, Christian organizations -- yes. Strangers in general? I doubt it.

The significance of this point came home to me when I read Josh Piven's response to the worst case scenario: "I might rob a bank." I think this is (mostly) a joke, but there's a hard truth to it. Absent the existence of the organizations just mentioned, robbing a bank (or a 7-11) would become a more attractive option.

Still, that's not to say I would turn to crime. But the existence of non-governmental charitable organizations makes it less likely. And, since the hypothetical worst case scenario is not really so hypothetical for some people -- and wouldn't be completely hypothetical in libertarian land, either -- it's important that these organizations exist.

This is yet another reason to attack the all-encompassing nanny state: by co-opting the role of these organizations, it weakens them. But, when it comes to helping people, the state is inept, although it's still pretty good at killing them.

Some have argued that disaster scenarios prove that we need the state to take care of us. Perhaps these scenarios prove the opposite: if the worst struck, I wouldn't turn to the government for help. I'd turn first to the organizations that have always been there to help, because helping is built into their ethos from the ground up.

Or else I could go to the woods with Ann Wroe and be empty. And get eaten by a bear.

* Yes, I know, the bears in the vicinity of Algonquin don't generally eat people.

Posted by Terrence Watson on November 20, 2008 in Libertarianism | Permalink


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The white Toronto person answer:

1. What’s the first move you would make?

-Blame someone other than myself. Examples include Alberta, the US, George Bush, and non-whites.

2. What’s the first organization you would turn to?

-The government of course. They owe me.

3. What would your extended plan look like?

-Collect free government money, and if they tried to stop I'd raise hell.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-20 9:05:43 PM


Haha. Somehow, I knew you'd respond this way. :-)

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-11-20 9:26:26 PM

If the point of the exercise is to point out how little people know about basic survival, it's been a success. Does Mr. Wilkinson have absolutely no idea how people act when they have nothing? The very first person he approaches will probably take his shoes.

Posted by: dp | 2008-11-20 10:01:28 PM

Remember that the Toronto people called in the army to shovel their snow a few years back - that's astounding proof of their attitude towards crisis. Mayor Miller's petitions further prove that trend.

The city's motto should be "Can't Someone Else Do It?"

I have a plan for the forthcoming zombie apocalypse. Do you?

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-20 11:28:08 PM

It depends where you live. If it's Zimbabwe, you hunt for rats.


Posted by: DJ | 2008-11-21 12:55:04 AM

How about having some hard currency on hand, stocking up on dry food items, a source of heat, and a way to stop people from taking your shoes.
And defending it. Or you could just go hang out in the woods I suppose...

Posted by: JC | 2008-11-21 5:44:57 AM

If there was a zombie apocalypse in Toronto, would anyone notice?

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-21 9:12:11 AM


David Miller would notice. He would quickly pass a resolution requiring all zombies to wear helmets so they didn't hurt themselves while stumbling around.

But he might ban the rest of us from wearing helmets, as that might make the life of a zombie more difficult.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-11-21 10:10:53 AM

JC- Very few (Canadian) people understand the concept of defending property. If the worst were to happen, there'd be a rapid re-distribution of real wealth.

Posted by: dp | 2008-11-21 10:11:22 AM

Agreed. Those of us who do hold those concepts will probably fare a little better than the rest.

Posted by: JC | 2008-11-21 10:22:19 AM

Terrence: no, Miller would not do that. He would issue a petition asking the feds to do it for him.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-21 10:44:04 AM


Heh, well said. Yes, indeed, that is what he would do.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-11-21 10:54:56 AM

It's going to be so much fun when Toronto encounters a major disaster. You people are unprepared in every sense of the word.

Posted by: Zebulon Pike | 2008-11-21 11:05:43 AM

It's impossible to be prepared for every disaster. That's why they're called disasters. In Israel, people would cope with rocket attacks much better than people in Calgary. On the other hand, Calgarians would likely handle -30 and a blizzard better than people in Tel Aviv.

Poverty would be a minor inconvenience in Sudan, or on the Atikameg Reserve. Calgary might have some issues with a minor recession, let alone food shortages.

My plan? Get as far away from major population areas as possible. Start gathering like minded people, and collecting donations from well stocked, unarmed civilians. Taking over Hutterite colonies would be a good first step in the west. They'd be easy to defend, and have everything you need to produce food. They have a plan for survival, but it doesn't take into account that I have a better plan.

Anyone remember "Deadly Harvest"? Clint Walker, what an actor.

Posted by: dp | 2008-11-21 11:31:41 AM

I think the answer is pretty obvious: Start rebuilding from scratch. Right after I cash the cheque from the insurance company. You DO have insurance, right?

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-11-21 11:55:27 AM

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