The (Second) Horror of the Flint Water Crisis

Op-Ed by Walter Block

If the drinking water from the Flint River in Michigan looked dirty, or smelled bad, the disaster could probably have been avoided. No one would have drunk the poisonous liquid, and roughly a dozen people who died from Legionnaires Disease from doing just that would still be alive today. Lead contamination, especially of children, would not have had such a serious impact.

But, in the event, the water seemed fit to imbibe and one of the worst drinking water contaminations duly ensued.

Various politicians and government bureaucrats have been charged with crimes as a result, including former Michigan Governor Rick Snyder. They have been replaced, hopefully, by more cautious and careful “public servants.” (Scare quotes around that phrase, in case anyone isn’t noticing.)

But is this enough? Has justice been fully done? Have the prospects for this type of failure been sufficiently minimized whether for this river, for this state, or anywhere else in the country?

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Let us argue by analogy, to buttress this response. Suppose a few McDonald’s franchises, God forbid, had done to their burgers the equivalent of what those in charge of the Flint River had done to the water therein (mainly, failed to sufficiently treat it so as to prevent lead corrosion). Perhaps they stuck lead pellets in between the buns, along with the onions and ketchup. Similar results ensued: sickness, death.

Would it then be sufficient that these few executives were fired, even imprisoned, as a result? Not at all, since those ultimately responsible for such a catastrophe, the ones who had hired them in the first place, and/or awarded them the coveted yellow big Ms, would still be behind the same old lemonade stand. No, under free enterprise assumptions, the whole kit and kaboodle of McDonald’s would go the way of Pan American Airlines, the Nash Rambler, Lehman Brothers, and Texaco.

No, none of these killed anyone, but they all went broke. We would now be getting our burgers, sans lead, from Burger King, Wendy’s, and others of that ilk. The reason we have pretty good shirts, shoes, salamis, and succotash is due to the fact that whenever a company screws up, royally, not only do the CEOs lose their jobs, but the firm disappears entirely, and is replaced by entrepreneurs with different skill sets.

How would this work with the Flint River? How can this resource be placed on the same free enterprise foundation as all these other industries? You had better be sitting down before you read the next few sentences, for the public policy suggestion emanating from this quarter is to privatize the river! And not only the Flint River, but all the others as well, up to and including the Mississippi. (The Flinters were pikers; they only killed people numbering in the low two digits; in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, some 1,900 people perished when the levies placed in and around New Orleans failed; the responsible party, the Army Corp of Engineers, is still in operation.)

The privatization process would see to it that there was a private firm, call it the Flint River Corporation, that would be owned by thousands of stockholders. Who, in turn, would they be? According to John Locke’s theory of homesteading, they would be all those who had “mixed their labor” with this body of water: the boaters, swimmers, those who drank the water, etc. We are talking of people mostly living in Flint Michigan and nearby areas. The shareholders (not “stakeholders”!) would vote for a board of directors, who would appoint the CEO and manage the facility so as to earn profits for the stockholders. If they ever even came within a million miles of what the state officials did, they would be replaced by new owners (the old managers would have their rear ends sued off), as occurs in every other industry in the capitalist system.

To the humanist, the fact that innocent people were sickened and died from poisonous water is of course the tragedy. But to the cold-blooded economist who has a cash register for a heart and dollar signs printed on his eyeballs, the horror is that the same institution responsible for this tragedy in the first place is still in charge, and is still the owner-manager of the resource.


Image Credit: Flickr-George Thomas | CC BY NC ND 2.0 (

Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

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