You should never try to tell people what they ought to do, because all of their circumstances are different. But if you give them very good timely information, they are going to make their own decisions in ways, in general, that are going to be better for them and better for the system as a whole.
This might seem especially persuasive in a world where Mayor Bloomberg now faces criticism for over-preparing his city for a hurricane that, eventually, wound up fairly disappointing. But take it from someone who watched Irene make landfall from the Battery at 4 A.M.: while this was a non-event for the City, it could have been catastrophic, and it was elsewhere (see The Atlantic‘s photo coverage). That the city’s largely back on-schedule, just two days after the event, remains testament to the Mayor’s preparation and the value of swift government action in such catastrophes.
And, the evidence is that people generally don’t react in ways “that are going to e better for them,” even and especially in a crisis. Research conducted after the 2005 disaster confirms, people who stayed behind, and chose to weather Hurricane Katrina rather than evacuate, weren’t oblivious to the danger, Glenn Beck’s “blame-the-victim” psychology notwithstanding. They were either unable to evacuate, or convinced that the storm could somehow be weathered. In either situation, there’s a place for government to do the valuable work of correcting these misunderstanding and, yes, of saving citizens from their own bad choices.
We can generalize this to a broader theory of regulation, to contradict the right’s meme that regulation somehow effects tyranny, or does more harm than good. Although most of civil society thinks for itself, and can be trusted to make good decisions, there are some segments of society that can’t or won’t. From the Georgia restaurant owner (and later governor) who chose bankruptcy over integration, to the absolute chaos of virtual economies (pdf), the human psyche is a varied and often irrational thing. Government recognizes this, and addresses itself to the margins. If the task of caring for those that society leaves behind somehow inconveniences the majority, or fails to resonate with their belief in the value of self-reliance, well, I’m not sure we should care.