Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, was angry. Monday afternoon, as Hurricane Sandy bore down on his coastline, he berated people living on the state’s barrier islands “who refused to adhere to my mandatory evacuation order and said they were going to ride it out. … We’re putting other people in harm’s way now, too—the first responders—to get them out. So these decisions were both stupid and selfish.” The governor went on:
I asked you please to get off the barrier islands. But there are some towns in Atlantic and Ocean Counties that are only 50 percent evacuated … For those folks on the barriers: You’re putting other people in harm’s way as well. We already have rescues ongoing on the barrier islands. This is putting first responders in significant, significant danger, and it is not fair to their families for you to be putting them in that danger because you decided that you wanted to be hardheaded.
This wasn’t a nice thing to say to people stranded in a hurricane. But it’s true. If you defy government instructions and don’t take basic precautions, you aren’t just risking your life. You’re making the rest of us bail you out. That’s not fair.
What’s odd about Christie and other Republican governors is that they recognize this principle only when a hurricane hits. When it comes to injury or disease, which we know will strike everyone on this planet, the Republican governors defend your right to ride it out. They oppose any requirement to buy health insurance. If you get sick, the rest of us will shell out to rescue you.
A year ago, Christie mocked Obamacare, the federal law that subsidizes and requires the purchase of health insurance. “I have philosophical problems with the individual mandate,” Christie said. “What’s next? I am mandated to eat broccoli? What happens if Congress decides there is a crisis in the broccoli industry and mandates us to eat broccoli? … I don’t think my government should tell me, besides taxation, how to spend my money.”
Christie refused to prepare for the law’s implementation. He hoped the Supreme Court would strike down the individual mandate. Yet he declined to join a lawsuit against the mandate, arguing that New Jerseyans could “get a free ride” by mooching off other states that had chipped in to pay the lawyers. “They’re spending the money,” he reasoned. “And then, if it’s found unconstitutional, for once, New Jersey taxpayers are going to get a benefit for free.”
Now that a hurricane has struck, Christie excoriates coastal residents and officials for taking the same defiant, tough-it-out attitude. “I’m very disappointed in the fact that some decided to disregard my instruction—in fact, my order” to evacuate, he complained Monday evening:
I’m extraordinarily disappointed in elected officials who decide to tell people to directly contravene an order from the governor. … You have the governor of the state ordering a mandatory evacuation. Once I sign that declaration of state emergency, that power is the power of the governorship. And you have a mayor, a rogue mayor [of Atlantic City], telling his citizens not to leave.
Christie isn’t alone in this selective approach to personal responsibility. Bobby Jindal, the Republican governor of Louisiana, also refused to implement Obamacare, calling it a “blow to our freedoms.” In June, when Democrats found video of Mitt Romney describing the requirement to buy health insurance as a “personal responsibility mandate,” Jindal explained the quote away and protested that such a requirement could lead to “taxes on people who refuse to eat tofu.” But two months later, when Hurricane Isaac pounded Louisiana, Jindal instructed residents to heed evacuation orders and spare “our first responders.” Like Christie, Jindal ended up chiding residents who had failed to listen.
In the health-care fight, Bob McDonnell, the Republican governor of Virginia, didn’t just condemn the individual mandate at the federal level. He signed legislation forbidding it at the state level, too. “The Virginia Healthcare Freedom Act sets as the policy of the Commonwealth that no individual, with several specific exceptions, can be required to purchase health insurance coverage,” McDonnell proudly declared. But when a storm with dangerously high winds blew through Virginia this summer, McDonnell didn’t hesitate to order evacuations. And this week, as Sandy inundated the Virginia coast, he again instructed residents to follow orders and get out.
Hurricanes and health care are different in many ways, of course. Buying health insurance is more expensive than evacuating for a natural disaster. But in both cases, the question is whether you should be allowed to make your own choices when the cost of bailing you out will fall on others. If the state has no business forcing you to buy health insurance, even when the premiums are subsidized, why should it be empowered to order you out of your home in a storm, just to save your skin? Why do Republican governors think they can have it both ways?
William Saletan’s latest short takes on the news, via Twitter: