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A Tale of Two Quakes

Here’s a letter that I sent this morning to the Washington Post:

Re “Tens of thousands feared dead” (Jan. 14): 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 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.  Nor can they afford the health-care and emergency equipment that we take for granted here in the U.S.

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.

Donald J. Boudreaux

UPDATE: John Stossel posted my letter on his blog.  Many of the commenters there laugh and point to California’s stricter building codes as a major reason why the 1989 Bay Area quake killed far fewer people than did this week’s Haiti quake.  Quiz: why is the building-code argument mistaken?