In the wake of the Asian earthquake/tsunami disaster, several commentators have made the astute argument that the best defense against such catastrophic risks is economic growth.
Glenn Reynolds, for example, wrote in a Tech Central Station column:
Over the longer run, of course, the best protection against catastrophes, whether foreseen or unforeseen, is a society that is rich enough, and diverse enough, to be well-prepared for all sorts of contingencies. Which means that economic growth, and the freedom that produces it, may be the best guarantor of safety for us all. A rich society can afford to worry about things that a poorer one wouldn’t have the resources to think about. A rich society can take steps to prevent disasters before they happen. And a rich society is better positioned to survive disasters once they occur, even if they are completely unforeseen, or unforeseeable.
Where survival is concerned, rich is better. That’s something to keep in mind when people describe economic growth as “anti-human.”
Similarly, the Wall Street Journal argued today:
Rich countries suffer fewer fatalities from natural disasters because their prosperity has allowed them to create better protective measures. Consider the 41,000 death toll in last December’s earthquake in Iran compared with the 63 who died when a slightly stronger earthquake hit San Francisco in 1989.
The principal victims of the tidal waves in Sri Lanka and elsewhere Sunday were the poor people living in coastal shanty towns. The wealthier countries around the Pacific Rim have an established early-warning system against tsunamis, while none currently exists in South Asia. Developing countries that have resisted the Kyoto climate-change protocols have done so from fear that it will suppress their economic growth. These countries deserve an answer from the proponents of those standards. How are they supposed to pay for such protection amid measures that are suppressing global economic growth?
As we mourn the loss of life and unite to help the survivors rebuild their lives and communities, let’s also bear in mind that the best long-term help is an economic environment that allows these nations to put in place better manmade defenses against future depredations from nature.
Neither piece credits the originator of the “wealthier is healthier” thesis–the late, great political scientist Aaron Wildavsky (who I had the privilege of studying under and working with on a chapter of his last book, the posthumously published But Is It True?). Wildavsky first published his theory about risk and resilience in the journal Regulation in 1980; expanded upon it in the 1988 book Searching for Safety; and continued to write on the subject until his death in 1993.
As Wildavsky noted:
A strategy of resilience [as opposed to anticipation] requires reliance on experience with adverse consequences once they occur in order to develop a capacity to learn from the harm and bounce back. Resilience, therefore, requires the accumulation of large amounts of generalizable resources, such as organizational capacity, knowledge, wealth, energy, and communication, that can be used to craft solutions to problems that the people involved did not know would occur. Thus, a strategy of resilience requires much less predictive capacity but much more growth, not only in wealth but also in knowledge. Hence it is not surprising that systems, like capitalism, based on incessant and decentralized trial and error accumulate the most resources. Strong evidence from around the world demonstrates that such societies are richer and produce healthier people and a more vibrant natural environment.
This was not always commonly accepted wisdom. It’s a tribute to Wildavsky’s intellectual relentlessness that his once-unorthodox arguments are embraced and echoed today as a matter of course.
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