What the 2010 Haiti earthquake can teach us about economic partisanship

In crisis and recovery situations such as post-earthquake Haiti, we cannot afford to be wedded to ideology, argues David Josef Volodzko.

David Volodzko
30 August 2012

Dump trucks filled with corpses roll through the streets, dragging behind them a massive cloud of pulverized concrete that settles over the landscape and turns everything bone pale: the piles of broken stone, faces of survivors, even the burning sky. This was the white hell of the Haitian capital, days after the quake. "The acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air," reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, quoting the head of an Israeli rescue unit five days after the crisis. "It’s just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust - thousands of bodies everywhere. You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped." After the initial 7.0 earthquake of 12 January 2010, the US Geological Survey recorded 59 aftershocks of 4.5 or greater, including a 5.9 quake on 20 January, leaving over one million people homeless and hundreds of thousands dead, while the rest of the world scrambled to figure out how it could help.

What is clear at least is that nothing should come before the welfare of the Haitian people, and this naked truth helps illuminate a problem in current American thinking. Namely, partisan attitudes toward laissez-faire economics. Writing for Slate in an article entitled "The Liberty Scam", Stephen Metcalf outlines why the father of libertarianism Robert Nozick gave up on the philosophy himself. He begins: "Recently, I overheard a fellow Amtraker back off a conversation on politics. "You know, it's because I'm a libertarian," he said, sounding like a vegetarian politely declining offal." This is the problem with the debate over libertarianism today. Like vegetarianism, it's become an either/or issue – you either are or you aren't – with no allowance for the nuances of each situation. Thus libertarians hold to libertarianism just as their opponents hold to the belief that government agency is always the best means by which to serve the public good, each thinking the other's position perfunctorily inadequate or inherently immoral.

But libertarianism is fundamentally a political philosophy that urges minimal government involvement in the belief that this maximizes liberty. This might have certain moral implications, such as the idea that we aren't responsible for the well-being of others, but a person doesn't have to believe such things in order to be libertarian. Any society serious about a healthy populace will surely want to spend on preventative care, and libertarians don't refute this. They refute that government is the best agent for the cause, and in the case of Haiti it seems clear enough that a libertarian (or minimal) government is best.

Admittedly, libertarians in the US are partly to blame for this misunderstanding, since many have drunk deep from their own Kool-Aid and believe themselves the caped crusaders of liberty, as if the opposition (Democrats mostly) actually opposes liberty. Metcalf writes: "Every thinking person is to some degree a libertarian, and it is this part of all of us that is bullied or manipulated when liberty is invoked to silence our doubts about the free market. The ploy is to take libertarianism as Orwell meant it and confuse it with libertarianism as Hayek meant it; to take a faith in the individual as an irreducible unit of moral worth, and turn it into a weapon in favor of predation."

In other words, "liberty" is often abused by libertarians who act as though anyone who isn't in their ranks therefore doesn't value what it means. They pretend to have property rights to the concept itself, claiming those who see taxation as a tool for its protection don't understand the definition of the word, overlooking the fact that "liberty" refers to something more than merely freedom, which is just the power to act without restraint. It refers to the freedom of choice, and in so far as a restraint is a limitation of one's choices, and being free means being unrestrained, equal protection of freedom therefore requires an equal protection of choice. Liberty for all is equal opportunity.

Arguments made by either side favouring liberty or equality are founded on a false dichotomy, and as Metcalf points out, even Robert Nozick himself eventually came round to the idea that every one of us is morally obligated to help our brothers and sisters. The issue isn't whether serving the public good concerns us (it takes little foresight to see that it does), but whether or when the libertarian system better serves the public good, and the answer is: it depends. Serving the public good isn't the traditional libertarian agenda. Listing "liberty's current bedfellows", Metcalf includes Sarah Palin "to the extent she cares for anything beyond her own naked self-interest - oh, wait, that is libertarianism" and yes, "naked self-interest" does characterize a large swathe of the libertarian population. After all, the Libertarian Party platform clearly states its opposition to any foreign involvement (in other words, genocidal psychopaths may kill whomever they like so long as they do it someplace else).

But this doesn't mean libertarianism cannot be a vehicle for good, and Haiti has given us an excellent example of this. Right now in Haiti, private organizations and individuals are the largest contributor of relief aid ( the US is in second place). Meanwhile, the Haitian government is woefully incapable of doing what non-governmental organizations like Oxfam can.

This is not a call for the government to stand aside, but a suggestion that perhaps it should limit its influence to areas where it can be of use and collaborate or withdraw in areas where it cannot. To give a specific example of what I mean, the 2010 International Activity Report on Haiti by Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF) describes an outbreak of cholera affecting 171,000 people in the wake of the crisis, as well as the treatment by MSF of over 53% of them. More recently MSF reported that "the surge may be starting to subside." Or consider Zanmi Lasante, an affiliate group of Boston's Partners in Health, which has been in Port-au-Prince since 1985 providing aid to those who cannot afford hopsitals.

Such successes are not unmitigated. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, Bret Stephens explains: "Just about every conceivable aid scheme beyond immediate humanitarian relief will lead to more poverty, more corruption and less institutional capacity. It will benefit the well-connected at the expense of the truly needy, divert resources from where they are needed most, and crowd out local enterprise. And it will foster the very culture of dependence the country so desperately needs to break." He goes on to quote Kenyan economist James Shikwati, who describes the damage food aid can do: "This corn ends up in the harbor of Mombasa. A portion of the corn often goes directly into the hands of unscrupulous politicians who then pass it on to their own tribe to boost their next election campaign. Another portion of the shipment ends up on the black market where the corn is dumped at extremely low prices. Local farmers may as well put down their hoes right away; no one can compete with the U.N.'s World Food Program." Stephens concludes by arguing aid that goes beyond "the immediate and essential task of rescue" is only "perpetuating the toxic circle of dependence". We are, he says, killing them with kindness.

But even if aid isn't a permanent solution, it's the best temporary one we have. The indefinite continuation of aid will cripple any future hopes Haiti has of recovery, but its cessation would do worse. Following the quake, the government was in no position to take the reigns, and despite Stephens' insight, the NGOs are still doing an admirable job. This of course is not to say that government can never be the cure. Such a statement would be wrong. But it's equally so to say it always can. Moreover, the Haitian government isn't free of corrution. In fact it ranks near the bottom of Transparency International's 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, tied with Iraq. Therefore even given the risks of continued aid, it's reasonable that one would question paying into such a polluted system.

The key is to realize that one can side with libertarianism or government agency, but that a third option is to pursue the welfare of society and then support whichever of these two systems comes closest to delivering it in any given situation, for however long. The choice really ought to depend on specific socioeconomic factors, rather than loyalty to the notion of libertarian or socialist infallibility, and looking at such factors it seems that at the moment the best thing for Haiti is not to give more money to its government. Instead, anything anyone can spare should be delivered to the arms of non-government organizations such as Medicins Sans Frontières or Zanmi Lasante. Giving money to the current government is conceivably an even worse move than giving it to the Catholic Church in Haiti. Heaven forbid.

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