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CONTRARIAN QUESTIONS ABOUT POST-QUAKE AID : Bailouts Remove the Incentive to Prepare : Americans' generosity is abused when assisting victims is compulsory through taxes.

January 31, 1994|JOSEPH FARAH | Joseph Farah is editor of Inside California, a state political newsletter, and of the cultural watchdog biweekly, Dispatches.

When faced with such tragedy as the Northridge earthquake, the easiest reaction is to suggest that the federal government just bail everybody out. It's also the most gutless reaction. And the dumbest.

People are saying, "Gee, the federal government rescued Florida after Hugo, Hawaii after the big storm, San Francisco after the quake, Oakland after the fire and the Midwest after the flood. So, now it's our turn in Southern California."

Can someone show me where it suggests any such thing in the Constitution?

While it's understandable that California taxpayers expect some reciprocity, does it make sense to write Los Angeles a blank check now just because we have made similar mistakes in the past? In fact, the staggering potential cost of the L.A. cleanup ought to register as a 7.0 on the Richter scale of our national policy-making consciousness: We simply can't afford an endless nightmare of multibillion-dollar disaster bailouts.

There are other reasons to rethink our benevolent reflexes every time calamity strikes. Look at it this way: The same day the earthquake ripped the Los Angeles area, somewhere else some poor guy--maybe in Idaho or Mississippi--lost his house when it was struck by lightning. Is he any less deserving of our compassion? Is he any less an innocent victim? If not, how come I'm not being asked to pay higher taxes to help him out?

Let's take this analogy a step further. Let's say the guy has no fire insurance. Now, not only is he forced to start over with no aid, no visit from President Clinton, no sympathy from Sen. Barbara Boxer, but he also has to help pay for the earthquake victims in Los Angeles.

Lots of people would like to help out the L.A. quake victims. Americans rise to the occasion every time they are confronted with tragedy. But compassion cannot be forced upon people. And it's bound to cause resentment when some elected public servants act like it's their money that's being offered. Here's are some suggestions on how this could be better handled:

* President Clinton should set up a toll-free hotline, get on television and use the moral authority of his office to ask Americans to contribute to a special L.A. earthquake fund. Let the Red Cross, Salvation Army or another charitable agency decide how to address the needs.

* Encourage more personal responsibility and community preparedness. Government doesn't do that when it takes away the incentive to insure property. If Uncle Sam is going to pick up the tab, why should anyone bother to pay for insurance?

* Instead of transferring wealth from other parts of the country, why not just allow hard-hit Los Angeles to keep more of its own wealth? Federal and state tax breaks for the disaster area would turn loose the power of the free-enterprise engine and transform the sluggish L.A. economy into a dynamic showcase.

I know it's not practical to suggest a total break from past practice. Can we at least come to a consensus that this is the last mega-tragedy for which the federal government is going to accept responsibility? Can we all agree there is no endless supply of money in Washington, no matter how noble and worthy the cause? If so, maybe something positive will have emerged from Los Angeles' cataclysm.

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