By Chris Matthew Sciabarra

"Where Were You When the Lights Went Out?," The Light of Reason (16 August 2003, 2:49 p.m.)

Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Silber will not speak to you tonight. His time is up (that is, until he vanquishes the Microsoft Worm). I have taken it over. This is Chris Matthew Sciabarra speaking. Just don't blame me for stopping the motor of the world. I'm just a guy from Brooklyn who---like 50 million other people---had to deal with the Blackout of 2003.

It was Thursday, August 14, 2003, 4 p.m. I'd just gotten out of the shower. Charlton Heston Day---featuring films such as "Khartoum," "The Big Country," and "
Ben-Hur"---was playing on Turner Classic Movies. My computer was still collecting a regular inflow of email, including a note from Kernon Gibes who complained that he could not access this website online---surely a sign of things to come! And a friend had just called---telling me that he was in the neighborhood and wanted to stop by to say hello. Had to be a quick hello, I explained, because I had plans to meet my sister for dinner.

It was now 4:11 p.m. My friend had knocked on the door precisely at that moment when every electric appliance in my apartment shut down---from the air conditioner to the lights, from my Charlton Heston movies to my PC. My first thought was that somebody downstairs---I live on the second floor of a two- family house---had clicked the circuit breaker. But the family downstairs lost their electricity too. And my brother and sister-in-law, who live across the street, lost their electricity. And all my neighbors were in the dark! This seemed to be a problem that not even Moses, uh, Charlton Heston, could resolve!

"It figures," I screamed. "The first freaking 90-degree day in August and Con [no pun intended] Edison [our resident monopoly public utility] can't handle it." So I turned on my transistor radio, and by the time I found a working radio station, it appeared that the entire region---from Canada to Cleveland, Michigan to Montauk Point, Newark to New York---had ground to a halt. Before anyone could say "Osama Bin Laden," we were being assured that this was not an act of terrorism (amazing how quickly they came to that conclusion!!!). But who the hell needs terrorists when you have public utility monopolies with which to contend???

Still, it's not as if terrorism wasn't on everybody's mind. That's the nature of the world in which we now live. Last summer, when a Con Ed transformer exploded in Manhattan---at the precise moment that a group of F-16s was flying over head en route to a Yankee Stadium air show---the expression of horror on the faces of pedestrians was easily discernible. Yes, yes, you can't ever break the spirit of real New Yorkers. But in the post-9/11 universe, too many of us are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Terrorism was certainly on my sister's mind. She was attending a conference in the Metrotech section of Brooklyn. When the lights went out, she heard that familiar refrain---something told to the workers who sat by in the South Tower of the World Trade Center, after the North Tower had been struck by a jet plane: "Stay where you are, it's safe here. Everything will be okay."

Wisely, my sister bid everyone adieu, and started making her way home through local streets that had no functioning traffic lights. I couldn't reach her, or my other relatives, or anyone else who possessed a cell phone, but I did receive a call from my friend
 Ilana Mercer, who lives very far from New York City. Because she called within a few minutes of the blackout, she wasn't even aware that a whole region had lost electric power.

By this point, my visiting friend had decided to try to get back into Manhattan. When two local taxi services refused to even attempt a Manhattan trip---entirely understandable---I decided to navigate my way to the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn, giving my friend an opportunity to walk over the Brooklyn Bridge, so he could return home.

I didn't mind the traffic, if only because my car---unlike my apartment---was air conditioned. But there was something far more pleasing than the efficacious experience of automotive climate control. It was the people. The people of New York City doing what they always do: Prevail. There were no red lights, no green lights, no blinking yellow lights. But there were people---of every stripe, color, and nationality---directing traffic. They were not police officers. They were just neighbors---who spontaneously rose to the occasion. And at intersections without traffic directors, there was simple human courtesy.

Now, don't get me wrong: Every so often, there was the occasional "douche bag" driver---as one frustrated motorist put it---who decided that he would make his own rules. But the overwhelming mode of the evening was voluntary cooperation among self-interested individuals, whose conception of self-interest was broad enough to include mutual assistance.

The Nobel laureate economist
 F. A. Hayek would have been proud to witness this wonderful example of “spontaneous order” in action. Out of the myriad purposeful actions of many individuals emerges a civil order that is a part of nobody's conscious design. It gives voice to Proudhon's dictum that "liberty is the mother, not the daughter, of order!"

There was one report of minor looting and a few arrests in a single section of my beloved Brooklyn. But this was nothing like the mass chaos of the Summer of 1977---when New Yorkers were triply victimized by a 25-hour blackout, civil turmoil, and a nut known as the Son of Sam, who had taken to shooting people as they sat in their cars in Lover's Lanes across the city. (Indeed, I remember being very jumpy back then: walking my mother and sister home from my grandmother's house at 2 a.m., on a stifling July night, I assured them that I'd protect them. Alas, as we passed a gas station, a car backfired, and I must have jumped about two feet in the air from fright. So much for being macho in the face of a serial killer.)

The 1977 blackout was a particularly horrific example of spontaneous disorder in Fun City. Over 3,400 people were arrested and more than 550 police officers were injured trying to restore order. Several other minor blackouts in the 1980s were not nearly as bad---but I do recall having to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to return home on one occasion, since there were no functioning subways.

Such blackouts are a relatively recent phenomenon. But their symbolism was never lost on the novelist and philosopher Ayn Rand. Rand wrote a best-selling book, published in 1957, Atlas Shrugged, where, led by the protagonist John Galt, productive men and women go on strike against the collectivist society that is slowly strangling them. By withdrawing any sanction of their own victimization, they eventually stop the motor of the world. Because the human mind is the ultimate motor---and motive power---of every individual, and because individuals must choose to think, act, and produce, Rand reasoned that a strike of the men and women of the mind would lead to the collapse of parasitical collectivism and predatory statism. In the last chapter of Atlas Shrugged, Rand described the final stages of that collapse:

"The plane was above the peaks of the skyscrapers when suddenly, with the abruptness of a shudder, as if the ground had parted to engulf it, the city disappeared from the face of the earth. It took them a moment to realize that the panic had reached the power stations---and that the lights of New York had gone out."

When the lights of New York really did go out for the first time---on November 9, 1965---Rand "recognized the symbolic meaning of the event." As a postscript to her 1964 article, "Is Atlas Shrugging?"---an article in which she searched for signs of a brain drain in an era dominated by parasitism and predation---Rand quoted from some of the letters and wires she had received in the days following that infamous event.

A wire from Austin, Texas, signed by a number of names: "We thought you said the novel was not prophetic."

A wire from Marion, Wisconsin: "There is a John Galt."

From a Letter in Indianapolis: "But it didn't even take a panic, did it, Miss Rand? Just that same old irresponsibility and incompetence. The train wrecks [etc.] have made us chuckle, but this fulfilled prophecy also brings a shudder."

A note from Dundee, Scotland: "I could not help but think of your book Atlas Shrugged when we saw on television New York without its lights---there on the screen the black canyons of the buildings and the low lights of the cars trying to find a way out."

From Memphis, Tennessee (a postcard sent by his mother to a reader who sent it to me): "I just had to pass this on: Last night in the blackout in the Northeast [a friend] called and asked if you were there. I said no, and she said: 'Well, I'm sorry, I wanted to ask him if Atlas had shrugged!'"

A note from Chicago: "We waited expectantly for the one rational explanation for the 'blackout' of 11/9/65. 'This is John Galt Speaking.'"

While the blackout of 1965 did not result in the looting and lawlessness of 1977, I think a profound change in the civic culture of New York City over the last decade has had a lasting positive effect on the consciousness of New Yorkers. With a dramatic decrease in the urban crime rate, and a dramatic increase in attention paid to intangibles like quality of life, New Yorkers have come a long way from the days of
 Kitty Genovese---whose neighbors ignored her pleas for help, as she was stabbed to death on a public street in Queens back in 1964. New Yorkers have fought hard to take back their streets and their city from urban nihilism.

This change in our culture couldn't have happened at a better time. For out of the ultimate nihilism of 9/11, out of the ashes of Ground Zero, the resilient citizens of New York have passed the test that no blackout can ever blank-out. Almost two years since that fateful September day, we continue to respond to each other with a level of human benevolence that has helped us to deal with our personal losses and to count our blessings that we still live in the greatest city on earth.

So when people ask me: Where were you when the lights went out? I answer: Home. And it's a home I'm really proud of.


Speaking of home: We spent a lot of time in this house since the blackout. We were part of a virtual block party on Thursday night. We bought pizza pies for dinner, listened to the news a lot on our transistor radios, and even listened to a Yankee game! All-news WCBS-AM, which usually broadcasts the Yankee games, was featuring wall-to-wall blackout coverage. But because that other baseball team's game was canceled due to no lights at Shea Stadium, the Yankee broadcast was switched to WFAN-AM: the radio home of the New York Mets! HORRORS! Anyway, Hideki Matsui made a great catch, or so I heard, and the Yanks beat the Orioles, 8-5.

By 11 p.m. on Thursday, however, we---my sister, my dog Blondie, and I---needed a dose of car air-conditioning, which helped for about 15 minutes. And if I couldn't watch "Ben-Hur" on TCM, then it was a great night to look at Mars! With no street lights, on a clear moon-lit night, and with
 Mars nearing its closest point to Earth in 60,000 years, we could see the very visible planet in all its Red glory.

That vision of Mars, however, was the last thing on my mind at 2:20 a.m., as I lay on my kitchen floor in front of an open window---yearning for one whisk of air. Having closed my eyes for only 15 to 20 broken minutes in a state of heat-induced unconsciousness, sweating more than sleeping, I staggered into the shower for the second or third time of the night.

While we were hoping for a miraculous deep freeze in the heat of August, our freezer was thawing out my sister’s delicious home-cooked lasagna. We were able to eat that defrosted lasagna on Friday afternoon---and should be enjoying lunch and dinner for a few more days.

By 6:30 p.m., on Friday the 15th, electricity had finally returned to my apartment, giving me the opportunity to type these reflections. Thanks to my friend Arthur for this---like Ahnold, he’ll be back! And thanks to Kernon for being a real pal and for facilitating this post. Blackouts may come and go, but the Light of Reason shines on…

Posted by: Chris Sciabarra on Aug 16, 2003 | 2:49 pm


Good to see _you_ blogging here, Chris, Mr. Sciabarra! Thank you! Yes, the Light of Reason must shine on. And I look forward to Arthur's return.

Posted by: Steven Malcolm Anderson on Aug 16, 03 | 11:03 pm

Very clever intro, Chris! Incidentally, the first thing I thought of in relation to the blackout and Rand was HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS. I pictured Rand as the grinch (sorry!) writing the Blackout of ATLAS, and watching from Galts's Gulch as the motor of the world stops. But instead of chaos, the people of New York form a circle around the city, and start singing like the Whovillians, and as Rand watches, as the people band together like Chris describes, "in block parties and picnics with barbeque briskets, and instead of fighting they decided to risk it, they sweltered and sweated through hot August weather, but found in their hearts to get through it together. "

"And Rand's heart, which critics said was 2 sizes too small, had suddenly grew...and GREW...to ten sizes too tall!

New York had not fallen, but rose to the occasion, without threat of force, but with love and persuasion.

and then they all sat down to a nice summer feast, with potatoes and stuffing (but without the roast beast).

Posted by: joe on Aug 17, 03 | 12:13 am


Fred Barnes states the case for fascism, up front and honestly, in the Friday WSJ opionion page.

start printing the bumper stickers:

"Busholini 2004"

Maybe it's time to abolish the 22nd amendment? We can go for a two-fer: no 22nd amendment and no gay marriages amendment, all at the same time!

Posted by: p mac on Aug 17, 03 | 1:19 am

Oh, in answer to the question "where were you when the lights when out?" (kinda sounds like the next number one Country single by Randy Travis...)

I was in Seattle, where its only 75-80 degrees and no need of air conditioners! HEHE...I got tired of the Philly heatwaves and humidity1

Posted by: joe on Aug 17, 03 | 1:25 am

You're right. Freddy the Beetle Barnes is on to something. But stopping g*y and l*sb**n (think of the children!) marriage is only the first step. Join with Pat Robertson in praying for the death (oops! retirement) of Justice Anthony Kennedy so we can get government (oops! God) back in our bedrooms. We must do something about that decadent 1% of the population that controls Hollywood, the universities, the banks, etc., and has an agenda to corrupt our children. Bush for Duce? Scalia for Fuhrer! For a Morally Pure AmeriKKK(oops!)a!

Posted by: Steven Malcolm Anderson on Aug 17, 03 | 1:28 pm

I just wanted to thank all those who have commented thus far on my reflections on Blackout 2003.

I did receive some off-list mail with regard to some of the points made in my post, and I would just like to say a little something about that correspondence here.

One reader wondered what the actual connection was between Rand and this specific blackout. Of course, I didn't "flesh out" the implications of the libertarian analysis of public utility monopolies. But I wanted to bring attention to the fact that Rand was impressed by the overall symbolism of the 1965 blackout, even if that blackout was not caused by the kind of "Atlas shrugging" that she envisioned in her 1957 novel. Rand saw the symbolism because she understood---quite correctly---that widespread crises of this nature were the result of a system of political economy (which she called the
 "New Fascism"). It was a system based on government control and regulation, monopoly licensing and franchises, pull peddling and privilege-dispensing across every modality of social life.

Posted by: Chris Matthew Sciabarra on Aug 18, 03 | 1:34 pm

In this current essay, I didn't present a lengthy critique of monopoly public utilities, public goods, or monopoly franchises, but for those interested in a more formal discussion of these issues, see the various essays archived at the Cato Institute and also this brief note on "The Big Blackout".

An offlist commentator also criticized my brief mention of F. A. Hayek, in the current context, arguing that Hayek's notion of "spontaneous order" was not really applicable. For this critic, "spontaneous order" was not simply having other people step into predefined roles in an existing system of traffic laws, as I've described it here. True enough---but Hayek was very well aware of the intimate reciprocal connections between spontaneous patterns of social behavior and established rules. Each provided the framework for the other: customs, traditions, and habits that emerged over time often were codified institutionally; likewise, once rules are codified, a spontaneous process develops within that context, allowing for adaptability and flexibility.

Posted by: Chris Matthew Sciabarra on Aug 18, 03 | 1:36 pm

Another thing to remember is this: The "spontaneous order" that results in the face of a crisis, such as Blackout 2003, or 9/11 for that matter, extends far beyond traffic control. People often form ad hoc groups to help their neighbors, to facilitate room and board for the dispossessed or for travelers, and to distribute food and drink to absolute strangers. There was nobody directing this process: it was simply concerned human beings reacting with benevolence toward their fellow human beings.

However, the point I was trying to make---implicitly---in my contrast between the 1977 and 2003 blackouts was this: A spontaneous order---like any societal institution (whether designed or emergent) is only as good as the culture within which it arises. If that culture is the product of years of urban decay and nihilism---as much of NYC life was in the 1970s (with fiscal & welfare crisis, rampant crime, and community deterioration)---the possibility of negative social consequences is multiplied exponentially.

I think there has been a change for the better in the civic culture of New York City---a dramatic change certainly from the 70s and 80s---and that change has been reflected in, and nourished by, the response to crises like 9/11 and Blackout 2003.


Posted by: Chris Matthew Sciabarra on Aug 18, 03 | 1:38 pm

This is where we are heading if we don't turn back soon:

Posted by: Steven Malcolm Anderson on Aug 18, 03 | 5:20 pm

In addition to the links provided above, let me also recommend a good reading of David M. Brown's CRUNCH REPORT entry on Blackout 2003, entitled: "Why Did the Transmission Lines We Weren't Allowed to Build Fail to Carry the Current?".

Posted by: Chris Matthew Sciabarra on Aug 19, 03 | 6:39 am

Chris, thanks for recommending Brown's article on the thought outage/power outage posted at his Crunch Report site. It's a very good article. Yes.

Posted by: David M. Brown on Aug 20, 03 | 9:57 pm


Posted by: Steven Malcolm Anderson on Aug 21, 03 | 2:08 am

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