The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 14, Number 5
Thomas J. DiLorenzo
The 1996 blizzard dumped three feet of snow on the Washington, D.C., area. The event
once again that statist economists, armed with their "market failure" theories, perceive reality
exactly the opposite from the way it is. It is government, not the free market, that is inherently
plagued with inefficiency, fraud, and corruption. Private property and competitive markets
provide citizens with the superior alternative--not the other way around.
The Washington, D.C., government rose to its greatest level of incompetence following the
blizzard. Most residential streets never saw a snowplow despite the fact that their residents pay
the highest local taxes of any jurisdiction in America. Much of the D.C. subway was out of
service for weeks because stupid government employees forgot to park the trains in underground
tunnels created for exactly that purpose, despite several days warning of the storm's approach.
The federal government also made things worse for snowbound residents by refusing to
the mail for as long as a week after the storm, despite the fact that private four-wheel-drive trucks
and even regular cars had little problem getting around. In some neighborhoods, the U.S. Postal
Service refused to deliver the mail if there was any ice on a sidewalk. And the EPA made life
much more difficult by prohibiting the dumping of any snow into the Potomac River.
In contrast to this carnival of incompetency, there arose a glaring example of the ability of
voluntarism and free markets to respond to such a crisis. Even the Washington Post
an "impromptu economy" emerged in the wake of the storm and compensated for many
For example, dozens of small landscaping businesses, normally dormant in the winter,
snowplows onto their pickup trucks and created a large, temporary industry of snow removers to
rescue D.C. residents. Farmers from Maryland and Virginia also discovered a profitable
wintertime use for their tractors, and hundreds of citizens started new "businesses" by shoveling
The complete paralysis of government--including the shutdown of the federal
government--created the fringe benefit of a charitable outburst. Citizens checked on their elderly
neighbors, volunteered their four-wheel-drive vehicles for use as taxis for hospitals, and
performed myriad other acts of generosity. Americans are especially generous when government
gets out of the way.
The Post noted that an "alternative blizzard economy" immediately arose.
businesses had been disrupted were "on one side" of the market, while "customers willing to pay
a premium to obtain a convenience" were on the other side. Miracle of miracles, "simple supply
and demand is sparking the entrepreneurial spirit that has created an underground economy"
which, according to one quoted professor, is the result of a "spontaneous response to adverse
Among other examples of this were a 13-year-old girl who made money by running back and
forth to grocery stores for her elderly neighbors; her 14-year-old friend who made $30 in two
days digging out cars; and the creation of a full-blown barter economy in a Maryland
As described by one resident, "everyone kept telling me that they couldn't find any bread at
store, so I baked six loaves. I gave a loaf to my neighbor. In return, he gave me a dozen eggs...."
Sounding as though she spent her downtime during the storm reading Human
Action, the woman
remarked, "there's an understanding that if you do something for someone else, at some point, the
other person is going to help you out."
Many smaller businesses that have been struggling to compete with larger chains viewed the
blizzard as an entrepreneurial opportunity by offering home delivery of pharmaceuticals,
groceries, and other items. The hope is that after the storm, customers will "think twice before
going to one of the big chains," according to one merchant.
Cities should scrap the common practice of managing the economy by controlling prices
and after a storm. That only hinders the market from meeting people's needs, and makes the
shortages and dislocations even worse. Cities should also rethink the enormous sums they spend
on "emergency" equipment that never does the job it is supposed to do. Far better to let people
plan for themselves. It's better that people in charge of a clean-up see it as a profit opportunity
than as a burden.
The blizzard of '96 left D.C. and blew its way up the east coast. Let's hope that the lesson of
the free market works was taught to the residents of Cambridge, Princeton, Providence, and other
Ivy League hotbeds of "market failure" theorizing.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo teaches Economics at Loyola College and is an adjunct scholar for the Mises Institute