Our country's ever-growing exposure to flood risk has been the target of policy reform for decades. To many experts, it is clear that we must stop subsidizing flood-prone development and begin the process of moving people away from flood-prone areas. And yet, despite the seemingly obvious benefits of abandoning areas that will be permanently underwater in a generation, flood-prone living has been a difficult habit to kick.
Examining the problem against the background of the philosophical literature on paternalism helps show why. Paternalism- government intervention in people's choices for the good of those same people-has long been controversial. The insistence that people be permitted to expose themselves to the risk of flooding if they choose to do so is arguably a product of a deep anti-paternalist, libertarian strain in our political culture.
The thorny problem of flood risk presents two obstacles to those who would embrace paternalistic policies as promoting a more rational approach to risk. First, a purely rational approach to the problem of flood risk is elusive. Judgments about when and where it makes sense to expose oneself to some risk of flooding are inherently value laden. Second, paternalistic policies raise distributive concerns, regardless of how they're structured. While paternalists are fond of pointing out that libertarian attitudes favor "good choosers" by allowing bad choosers the freedom to suffer worse outcomes, paternalistic policies similarly favor good choosers by mandating choices that align with their values.
These observations suggest that flood risk is a problem that is not susceptible to being "solved." There is not an optimal approach we can be nudged towards. Our commitment to freedom, on one hand, and our unwillingness to let the victims of natural disasters suffer alone, on the other, create a cycle of risk that we are not likely to break in any clean, satisfying way. The best we can do is to empower people by sharing the information (about flood risk) and resources (to help relocate) they need to make judgments of their own.
Alexander B. Lemann,
The Promise and Peril of Paternalistic Approaches to Flood Risk,
U. Colo. L. Rev.
Available at: https://scholar.law.colorado.edu/lawreview/vol93/iss3/4