Friday, May 02, 2008

Natural Disasters - Not Evidence of "Market Failure"

Thomas Bowden has been on a roll lately, here's his latest piece: How Governments Make Disasters More Disastrous. Some key excerpts:
The Katrina tragedy should have called into question the so-called safety net composed of government policies that actually encourage people to embrace risks they would otherwise shun--to build in defiance of historically obvious dangers, secure in the knowledge that innocent others will be forced to share the costs when the worst happens.

Without blaming the victims for having followed their own government's lead, it is time to question whether those policies should continue.

[...]

By gradual steps, this disaster safety net became part of the legal landscape, taken for granted by private investors and owners deciding to undertake new projects or rebuild storm-damaged areas. Relief programs--by minimizing, disguising, and shifting the real risks of defying natural hazards--became an active force distorting private decision-making and inviting even worse future tragedies.

Thus if a pre-Katrina Mississippian asked himself, "Should I build my house 10 feet above sea level, a quarter-mile from the Gulf Coast?" the answer came back: "Sure, why not? The government will look after me if disaster strikes."

[...]

But the solution is not more of the market distortions and perverse incentives that have lured so many people into harm's way. The solution is to replace the prevailing entitlement mentality with a free market in disaster prevention, insurance, and recovery.

In a free market--without tax-paid levees, government disaster relief, or subsidized insurance--anyone who contemplates building or buying property in a high-hazard area will need to face hard facts about the local history of natural disasters, the efficacy and cost of preventive measures, and the availability of insurance.

For example, the high price--or total unavailability--of private insurance will resound like a clanging alarm bell, signaling the market's objective view that a particular building plan is abnormally risky compared to less dangerous locales.

With their own lives and wealth at stake, people will have every incentive to evaluate risks objectively. And if hardy souls still choose to occupy and fortify New Orleans, or build on an earthquake fault, or live in a tornado alley, the risk and reward will be theirs alone. No longer will government make disasters more disastrous by pretending that citizens have a right to defy the forces of nature at others' expense.

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