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At what cost?

The race is on to rescue Ken Barnes, a 47-year-old Californian whose storm-damaged boat is adrift somewhere off the tip of South America. Barnes had been trying to circumnavigate the globe. Now, apparently, he’s trying just to survive, and he’s the object of a massive search-and-rescue effort.

My question is, who’s paying for that effort? Not Barnes, I reckon. But the Chilean navy and the U.S. Coast Guard sure are. (Apparently, a fleet of private fishing boats and pleasure craft are helping, too.)

So, is that fair?

Is it fair that the community had to pay whatever it cost to go after the three climbers who died on Mount Hood in December? As Sam Howe Verhovek of the L.A. Times pointed out, those deaths were tragic–but the guys weren’t carrying emergency locator devices. And what were they doing on that mountain in December, anyway?

This tension plays out in much smaller ways all the time. I hurt my back badly playing soccer a couple of months ago, and had to have surgery. Too bad for me–but should a 47-year-old guy be playing a high-impact sport at all? My health insurance paid the tab, but I haven’t paid any more for that coverage than my (arguably) lower-risk (okay, I’ll say it: smarter) colleagues.

Obviously, this is a tough ethical problem, and an even tougher practical one. Even if we agreed that Barnes should be liable for at least part of the expense of his rescue, how would we enforce that? If someone sets off to sail around the planet, does the port collect a preemptive stupidity fee? Is it built into his personal liability policy? For nimrods like me, one answer is health insurance with high copays and deductibles–but that’s hard to mandate, too.

I dunno. I’m staying away from soccer, though.FCS