Mero Moment: Wildfire Evacuations and Liberty

Every summer Utah and other desert states battle the inevitable onslaught of wildfires. While many of these fires are caused by nature, many are man-made. Thousands of acres burn with nearly every fire. Fortunately, most of these wildfires occur in uninhabited areas. Rarely do we see raging fires that threaten suburban areas. But it does happen.

Just this past week a garbage dump caught fire outside of Eagle Mountain in Utah County and then spread to threaten the small community of Saratoga Springs on the west side of Utah Lake. At its most threatening point, hundreds of families were mandatorily evacuated from their homes as the fire crept closer to civilization. And now the Wood Hollow fire in Sanpete County has forced another mandatory evacuation.

So here’s a question for freedom-loving people: Why do we allow mandatory evacuations in a free society? If someone wanted to burn with their home, why wouldn’t we permit them that choice to lose their life as a matter of principle?

I ask this question to inspire my libertarian friends to reflect on the limits of human autonomy or personal liberty – because if they can understand the need to restrain personal choice in this case, they should be able to understand reasonable limitations on personal choice in other cases and perhaps, one day, release their childish, ideological grip on abstract notions of liberty.

Under Utah law, the governor can order political subdivisions of the state, such as little Saratoga Springs, to evacuate its residents from their homes under threat of emergency.

So, I’ll ask the question again: Why do we have laws that permit government authorities to physically remove us from our homes during states of emergency, even against our will?

The answer is the same reason why attempted suicide is illegal and grounds for a quick visit to the mental hospital: Life is precious; it’s inalienable; it’s the essence of what it means to be a human being. Just as society will do all it can to prevent a suicide, it will forcibly evacuate homes under imminent threat of destruction. We simply aren’t going to allow someone to unnecessarily die, because the truth is it’s in a free society’s interest to protect life.

If human autonomy is our only priority – if all we cared about was protecting the individual in his personal choices – we’d permit suicide and we wouldn’t forcibly remove people who choose to burn with their homes. We certainly wouldn’t care what harm anyone would do to themselves. We wouldn’t have mandatory evacuations, figuring smart people would evacuate on their own and reluctant people would be exercising their liberty to die.

But the primary goal of American liberty is a free society, not just the preservation of human autonomy. When our laws allow government authorities to remove a reluctant man from his burning home, we value something greater than the man. We value his life. We, the people, authorize our governments to restrain individual choice if that choice contradicts the purposes of a free society. This is why we regulate or prohibit certain narcotics. It’s why we regulate the sale and consumption of liquor. It’s all tied to freedom.

Perhaps the most specious argument made by libertarians is that any form of “victimless” restraint on human choice is an assault on liberty. But it’s also the same argument that a toddler makes when he doesn’t get what he wants.

For libertarians to be right, they’d have to argue that human autonomy – in this case, making a personal choice to burn to death – is an act of liberty. It reminds me of the old story about the dedicated libertarian who is so committed to freedom that he liberates his goldfish from the prison of its fishbowl. Premature, unwarranted or unnatural death isn’t liberty. And human autonomy isn’t the highest priority of freedom.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.