All Disaster, Only Part Natural

In this morning’s Marketplace commentary, I argued nature needed a helping hand to wreak as much human damage as it did recently in Burma and China. The upshot:

Economic growth creates roofs that don’t blow away, walls that don’t crumble, hospitals to tend the sick, and generators to keep to the ventilators on. The self-dealing thugs that botch the institutions of growth don’t just keep their people poor. They keep them vulnerable, exposed.

Marketplace now has a space for listener comments on the website. I thought I’d reply to a couple of them here. At the beginning of the commentary I say:

Back in the early 1950’s, Burma was the wealthiest nation in Southeast Asia. But today, after a half-century of socialism and authoritarian rule, it’s one of the poorest countries in the world.

Mention of socialism elicited this response from Ken Germanson of Milwaukee:

To blame these awful disasters on socialism is truly a stretch. Wilkinson, of course, is correct to say that corruption and dictatorial policies may have exacerbated these the tragic results. Corruption and dictatorships are not restricted to socialistic societies. You’d hardly see the traditionally socialistic nation of Sweden falling into such a disaster. Why indeed would Wilkinson even mention socialism as an issue other than to further the Cato Institute’s goals of permitting unfettered capitalism? And, why even use Cato materials without a disclaimer as to its ongoing bias?

To not blame a good deal of the poverty in Myanmar and China in particular on socialism would be to a monstrous denial of reality. In the early 1960s the regime implemented an economic program called the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” which successfully transformed Burma from an emerging regional economic power into an economic basket case. If you can’t pin the the failure of avowedly socialist economic schemes on the failure of avowedly socialist countries on socialism, then what can you pin it on? And, of course, Chinese communism — history’s largest experiment in actually existing socialism — was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions through famine alone. China has begun to develop economically precisely by relaxing their adherence to socialist economic policy. For its part, Sweden is a liberal capitalist welfare state, much like the United States, and is wealthy precisely because of its relatively free-market policies. It is among the most economically free countries in the world. It is a common mistake to confuse a country’s level of redistribution with its system of economic organization, but it is a mistake.

Dan Ness of Leucadia, CA writes:

Mr. Wilkinson makes his point clear that natural disasters are made worse by poor human planning, especially in corrupt self-dealing economies. It’s tragic what’s happened in China and Burma/Myanmar. However, I’m surprised Mr. Wilkinson didn’t cite Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. After all, in that tragedy roofs did blow away, hospitals were unprepared, and generators failed. We don’t need to point afar to find examples of botched institutions or systemically vulnerable people.

I thought about this, but thought the American audience would be distracted by the domestic politics surrounding Katrina. That’s why I compared the Sichuan earthquake to the 1995 Kobe earthquake. But Katrina strongly supports my general contention. The loss of life from Katrina is estimated at about 1800. But, if I understand the system for rating the intensity of hurricanes and cyclones correctly, Katrina was a more powerful storm than Nargis, which is now responsible for about over 80,000 fatalities. That’s an enormous difference.

That said, I think Dan’s comment raises a great point. Americans have been intensely critical of the American government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, implying that government actors may be held responsible for the consequences of natural disasters. And this is true, though the policies that really matter are the policies that affect the growth of wealth, not the policies of emergency response (which are themselves largely determined by the society’s wealth). But when it comes to less developed countries, the media seems far less willing to ascribe agency and responsibility to government policy, even though in these cases the ruling elites bear even more responsibility for the tragedy. I consider this a kind of ugly, morally blind condescension.