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Natural Disasters and the Bourgeois Virtues

Here’s me at the Wall Street Journal in the June 8th issue talking about the role of the private sector in providing disaster relief during the For McMurray fire:

“Tristin Hopper of the National Post gathered the figures: The oil companies provided free food and shelter to over 25,000 people. When the fires cut off easy road access to the small community of Fort McKay First Nation, Brion Energy began trucking in perishable foods daily. Imperial Oil donated 20,000 liters of gasoline to the relief efforts and Shell Albian Aerodrome rounded up evacuees on buses and, along with Suncor’s Firebag Aerodrome, evacuated over 7,000 people on company-chartered commercial jets using their private airstrips. “Alberta’s oil producers,” Mr. Hopper wrote, “effectively turned themselves into multimillion-dollar humanitarian organizations at the drop of a hat.”

That shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows what Wal-Mart did after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005. The company shipped thousands of trucks of water and other supplies into the area, well ahead of the lethargic Federal Emergency Management Agency. It even beat the Red Cross in many areas. The firm reopened most of its stores within 10 days. Wal-Mart also guaranteed employment at other stores for any of its workers who were forced to abandon their homes and jobs along the coast.

There are two things to be learned from this consistent pattern of virtuous behavior. First, these firms have experience that makes them distinctly effective during and after disasters. Wal-Mart constantly responds to changing market conditions, moving people and resources where they are needed. FEMA and other agencies don’t regularly engage in this sort of behavior. Communities would be wise to work closely with the private sector on disaster-relief protocols.

Second, we too easily forget that these firms are part of their communities. The people who work for Wal-Mart in New Orleans or for Imperial Oil in Fort McMurray have every reason to want to see their fellow citizens treated well. The peaceful exchanges that make up the free market are built on mutual benefit.

As companies engage in peaceful commerce with their friends and neighbors, they begin to inculcate what the economist Deirdre McCloskey calls the “bourgeois virtues,” which go vividly on display when disaster strikes. Many Albertans, as they return to their homes now that the fires have subsided, are glad today that they lived near those supposedly evil oil companies.”

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Author: Steve Horwitz
  • Jerome Bigge

    Of course the “nanny statists” will claim that it is the responsibility of government to “help” people. Unfortunately government often is “too late, too slow” to be of help when people need it.

  • bambam

    woopie. and you think what, this makes up for everything else? that’s some hardcore corporate apologia — it’s like they shit on our heads and we’re supposed to say thanks for the hat.

    • Ron H.

      That’s a really clever phrase. I wish I’d dreamed it up, and you probably wish you had too, but it’s not clear how your comment addresses the subject of the post..

    • Theresa Klein

      Exactly what did the oil companies do to you?

      As far as I can see their trail of corpses is a lot shorter than the ones left behind by the “idealistic” supporters of communism.

  • Krinein_ev

    You have corporate cock stuffed so deeply down your throat that it’s hard to understand what you’re saying.

  • geoih

    Based on some of the comments here (e.g., bambam, Krinein_ev), I think the left side of libertarianism has some real intellectuals on their side.

  • assman35

    Its ironic that the one place where capitalism and a market are absolutely needed is the one place where it doesn’t operate…namely disasters. Walmart contributes to the problem as do most stores and governments which ban price gouging.