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Monday, January 26, 2015

Stranded By The Storm

As a blizzard descends upon much of the urban Northeast, many state and local governments and transportation agencies are shutting down roads and vital transportation crossings. For example, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is shutting down the PATH interstate train and all six bridges and tunnels between New York and New Jersey at 11 pm tonight. The scope of the shutdown will literally strand travellers, and it will strand workers.

The offered reason is that this is being done for the public good, for the protection of the public.

The real reason may be different. Call me a cynic, but there are few better ways for government leaders to assert their power than to shut down transportation systems. I mean, what did you think the Bridgegate scandal involving the use of Port Authority personnel to close entry lanes to the George Washington Bridge in September 2013 was all about?

But what about the effect on the public? Well, it seems pretty clear. The main effect is to essentially scare the dickens out of the public, to raise the specter of being stranded in order to deter anyone from travelling in the hours before the peak of the storm (when only a few inches had fallen).  

However, the consequential effects are predictable and they are severe. Businesses were forced to close early on Monday, not because of the weather per se but because their workforce was rightfully concerned that they would lose the ability to get home. 

Call me a cynic, but one wonders if this isn't just the government shifting the burden of inconvenience on the public, in order to make its "job" easier and avoid having its inefficiencies in snow removal and road maintenance exposed. 

And as the vast majority of those inconvenienced or disrupted by these government actions happen to be business owners who are the last ones out shutting their stores or offices, or honest employees, then all the better. You see, the storm is useful in deterring -- no, punishing -- people from working, all the better. Never let a crisis go to waste. 

Now it is without doubt that a blizzard is a serious weather event and those stranded outdoors can have their lives imperiled in a worst-case scenario. But these government exercises in authority have a real and subtle message: They remove your choice in the matter, and allow government to dictate your freedom of movement. 

The trend in recent years to have governments just "shut down" all manner of transportation arteries seems to be more about flexing muscles in the name of protecting the public, than in actually doing good. We'll bet that more people will be stranded by the feckless efforts of public servants trying to look like do-gooders, than by reckless individuals out for a joyride in the middle of a blizzard.

And again, let's point to the Bridgegate scandal still being investigated by various federal and state authorities. If Bridgegate was an abuse of power in September 2013 -- as it apparently was, with its criminality still in much dispute -- then how exactly is preventing people from getting home not an abuse?

Some will object to the cynicism, but if the government does not trust the general public to exercise minimal due care and common sense with its own safety, why exactly is the general public obligated to accept as an article of faith that the government is acting in the true public interest?



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