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Are Tsunamis Good for the Economy?

Mises Daily: Thursday, December 30, 2004 by

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I didn't think anyone would dare to apply the Bastiat's Broken Window fallacy to the human tragedy that is still playing itself out along the rim of the Indian Ocean, but sadly, faith in economic fallacies is even more common than deadly tsunamis.

That is why I was surprised to hear the Institute for International Economics' C. Fred Bergsten (known affectionately as See Fred) this morning (December 29th) on National Public Radio's Morning Edition explain how this crisis would actually provide long-term benefit to that region of the world.

Bergsten said ,

Like any disaster, you get negative effects through destroying existing property and people's health, but you do get a burst of new economic activity to replace them, and on balance, that generally turns out to be quite positive.

Over time, properties that have been destroyed will be fully replaced, and probably by better and newer substitutes, so at the end of the reconstruction process, the countries will probably be wealthier.

To be fair, Bergsten admitted this disaster is, above all, a human tragedy, but his comments ignore other effects that will result when positive economic growth results from any disaster, whether it occurs due to a matter of policy (wars) or to unanticipated changes in the physical environment (tsunamis). These effects:

  • involve forced capital consumption, shifting capital from other uses to those necessitated by the disaster
  • ignore the opportunity cost of capital that is being transferred to the disaster sites (costs that should be considered before assuring public radio listeners that the resulting economic activity "generally turns out to be quite positive")  
  • encourage construction in areas that would likely be less inhabited if construction decisions were left to market forces, which is the same thing that happens when the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency continuously finances reconstruction after reconstruction along coastal areas in the U.S. that are regular targets of hurricanes     
  • legitimize the fallacies that disasters are good for economies, when in fact, while they allow governments to take credit for measured increases in gross domestic product, they reduce the quality of life to most everyone involved

I say most everyone because some groups in the economy clearly benefit, and often this includes firms that depend on government contracts resulting from emergency funding. Firms such as Halliburton or Bechtel may do great work in the private sector, but absent government contracts, these firms would play a much less notorious role in the society because their market power would be based, not on the forced conscription of capital that is taxation, but on voluntary exchanges between buyers and sellers. Politicians also benefit, if only because of the publicity they receive when disbursing other people's money to the disaster sites.

It doesn't have to be this way. Natural disasters are a fact of life, but the evidence is clear that they cause much less destruction than wars (and other fruits of the nation-state). For instance, as horrific as the loss of human life resulting from last week's tsunamis is, it doesn't come close to the loss of innocent human life that has resulted from U.S. intervention in Iraq since the 2003 invasion.

According to a study reported last fall in the British medical journal The Lancet, this number is already well over 100,000. Compared to the innocent civilian deaths resulting from the wars of the 20th century, it is clear that large, bureaucratic nation-states are a greater threat to human life than occasional and inevitable natural disasters.

Indeed, wars are synthetic natural disasters, writ large. As Ludwig von Mises pointed out in Human Action: "Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries."

He could have been describing much of what is occurring today both in Iraq and along the rim of the Indian Ocean.

It is also clear that the best protection against natural disasters is not an expansion if the public sector on an international basis, but wealth creation. It is no mistake that natural disasters, which are quite equitable in distribution between rich and poor countries, are more devastating to the poor than the rich. The establishment of a thriving private sector in Sri Lanka, India, and Indonesia is crucial for a quality of life to develop there that can withstand earthquakes and their aftermath as well as does the California coast.

But such development will not occur from state-managed, broken-window-like economic growth extolled by many mainstream economists. War and natural disasters are not good for the economy. The evolution of property rights institutions and the autonomy they engender, as well as free trade and the social cooperation it engenders, are the human race's best long-term insurance against both.

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Christopher Westley teaches economics at Jacksonville State University. See his Mises.org Daily Articles Archive. Send him MAIL. Comment on this article on the blog.