The Haiti Earthquake and Economic Freedom

The ultimate tragedy in Haiti isn't the earthquake; it's that country's lack of economic freedom. The earthquake simply but catastrophically revealed the inhuman consequences of this fact.

Registering 7.0 on the Richter scale, the Haitian earthquake killed tens of thousands of people. But the quake that hit California's Bay Area in 1989 was also of magnitude 7.0. It killed only 63 people.

This difference is due chiefly to Americans' greater wealth. With one of the freest economies in the world, Americans build stronger homes and buildings and roads, are better nourished, and have better health care and better search and rescue equipment. In contrast, burdened by one of the world's least-free economies, Haitians cannot afford to build sturdy structures and roads. (Haitian builders often add sand to their concrete because concrete is so expensive there. The result is weaker buildings.) Nor can Haitians afford the health care and emergency equipment that we take for granted here in the U.S.

More than just anecdotes prove that richer societies are safer societies. Lots of data back up this observation. For example, in a 2005 paper, UCLA economist Matthew Kahn found that, while rich countries experience just as many natural disasters as do poor countries, persons in rich countries are less likely than are persons in poor countries to die from such disasters. Specifically, a country of 100 million people with a per-capita income of $8,000 will experience about 530 fewer deaths from natural disasters each year than will a country with the same population but where per-capita income is only $2,000. Raise the per-capita income from $8,000 to $14,000 and the annual expected death toll from natural disasters falls by another 233 persons.

These stark facts should be a lesson for those who insist that human habitats are made more dangerous, and human lives put in greater peril, by freedom of commerce and industry.