At the height of last week’s winter storm—just as snow was piled to its peak, drifts were climbing high and temperatures had plunged to double-digit, below-zero wind chills—public officials declared states of emergency across Indiana. Some of those declarations banned all but emergency vehicles from town, city, county and state roadways.
One of my Facebook friends didn’t like that.
“I don’t know about you,” he posted, “but being told to not leave your home doesn’t settle well with me. I am capable of deciding for myself what and where and when I can come and go. Governance to the lowest level of intelligence and capacity. I’m going out.”
Apparently, many people agreed. He quickly scored 81 “likes” on this post.
My libertarian friend is no doubt as confident of his driving ability as his politics. I hope he had a safe journey. I hope he got by without assistance from anyone in government, including snowplow operators.
But my wife, Cheri’s, experience in the same storm explains why public emergency declarations are not only intelligent, but also commonsensical—and how they serve the public interest, not just one person’s self-interest.
On Sunday morning of the polar-vortex storm, Cheri was scheduled to depart on a business trip from Indianapolis International Airport. While snow had started falling, it wasn’t yet heavy and her flight was listed as on time. So she drove the 50 miles from our Pendleton home to the airport. She made it in reasonable time.
The plane arrived as scheduled, but by then, the snowfall had grown heavy. The departing flight was delayed. At the gate, the pilot told Cheri that even if they got out, there was no way she’d make her connecting flight in Atlanta. So she turned around and drove home.
A trip that normally takes one hour took four. Despite being a lifelong Indiana resident and seasoned driver on ice and snow, Cheri got stuck three times, twice on interstate ramps, backing up traffic behind her. Good Samaritans, including state police officers, helped push her out. On the Interstate 69 ramp closest to our home, she and the state police were obstructing snowplows that were trying to clear the way for others.
The first emergency declarations were issued about the time she got home. Based on what Cheri witnessed and experienced, that seemed wiser than telling every driver: “Hey, this is America. Y’all do whatever the hell you feel like doin’— public consequences be damned.”
As a card-carrying member of the ACLU, I cherish the individual freedoms granted by the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
But I also recognize that those liberties are and always have been limited when they infringe on the liberties of others.
I enjoy the right to free speech, but I may not shout “fire” in a crowded theater.
I enjoy the right to practice (or not) my religion, but I may not impose my beliefs on others—or ask government to do so for me.
I enjoy the right to bear arms, but I may not randomly open fire on my fellow citizens.
I also respect the phrase in the Declaration of Independence that says, “governments are instituted among men” to protect our rights.
So while it would make me happy to drive 120 miles per hour, I respect government’s role in protecting the lives of those around me via speed limits.
While I have friends who like to smoke cigarettes or cigars, I respect government’s role in protecting the lives and health of the workers who serve them and clean up after them.
While I’d like to walk down the middle of the street whenever I feel like it, I respect government’s role in painting crosswalks and regulating traffic.
Last month, during a speech in Australia, David Simon, an author, former police reporter and creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” lamented the abuse of libertarianism.
“Libertarianism in my country is actually being taken seriously as an intelligent mode of political thought,” Simon said. “It’s astonishing to me. But it is. People are saying, ‘I don’t need anything but my own ability to earn a profit. I’m not connected to society. I don’t care how the road got built. I don’t care where the firefighter comes from. I don’t care who educates the kids (other than my kids).’ I am me. It’s the triumph of the self. I am me, hear me roar.”
“I’m astonished at how comfortable we are in absolving ourselves of what is basically a moral choice,” Simon said. “Are we all in this together or are we all not?”
I vote for the former. And if the county commissioners tell me to stay off the snow-packed roads, I’m honored to serve my fellow citizens and speed the cleanup by staying in.•
Hetrick is a writer, public relations consultant and visiting professor of public relations for the IU School of Journalism at IUPUI. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.