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The Politics of Earthquakes

A Commentary By Joe Conason

Thursday, March 04, 2010

If the earthquakes in Chile and Haiti carry any message for those of us fortunate enough not to live in those places, perhaps it is that government regulation could save your life -- while right-wing ideology may kill you someday.

For those of us unfamiliar with geological terminology, it may come as a shock that the Chilean quake, rated 8.8 on the Richter scale, was roughly 500 times more powerful than the Haitian quake in January, which rated 7.0. Yet in Haiti, probably more than 200,000 lives were lost; in Chile, the number of dead is estimated at about 800. While that is still a terrible tragedy, the Chilean death toll is far less than 1 percent of that in Haiti.

The two disasters were different in ways that certainly explain at least part of the huge disparity in loss of life and property damage. The tectonic shift that hit Haiti was much closer to population centers, and of course Chile is a wealthier and more developed country, with a functioning government, a literate population and a recent history of coping with earthquakes. In 1960, the largest quake ever recorded struck near the Chilean city of Valdivia, killing thousands there and stimulating a tsunami that damaged coastal cities in Hawaii, Japan and the Philippines.

But that big quake in 1960 also led the Chileans to think about how they should cope with the threat of another such disaster -- as a nation. To strengthen new construction against earthquake damage, they legislated a strict revamping of building codes. And when democracy returned to Chile after two decades of military dictatorship, those regulations were rewritten, in 1993, to make them even more stringent. The seismic requirements demand that every structure use a "strong column" design to ensure that it remains standing even in a severe quake.

In a society with sane politics, rules and regulations needed to safeguard life don't provoke much debate, even on the furthest ends of the ideological spectrum.

Everyone realizes that there are certain dangers to which anyone can fall victim; protecting and insuring against those dangers is a social responsibility, a government function and a measure of human progress.

Here in the United States, however, anti-government ideology is a pandemic mental tic that has now developed into a virulent disorder afflicting a large number of citizens -- including many of our self-styled conservatives. Infuriated because their party cannot permanently control the White House and the Congress, they have gradually persuaded themselves that all government is evil, that all taxation is theft and that all regulation is tyranny. Or at least that is the tone of their rhetoric.

If the Chileans had adopted this kind of manic and reflexive attitude, many more of them would undoubtedly be dead today. The "free market" extremists who call themselves conservative probably wouldn't worry much about the loss of life, because they are far more concerned with ideological consistency than with practical effects. But the rest of us might consider the wiser approach of Friedrich von Hayek, the Austrian economist whose work is often cited by the extremists when they claim to be defending freedom.

In "The Road to Serfdom," perhaps his most popular work, Hayek explained that he saw no reason why "the state should not assist individuals in providing for those common hazards of life against which, because of their uncertainty, few individuals can make adequate provision. Where, as in the case of sickness and accident, neither the desire to avoid such calamities nor the efforts to overcome their consequences are as a rule weakened by the provision of assistance, where, in short, we deal with genuinely insurable risks, the case for the state helping to organize a comprehensive system of social insurance is very strong."

To Hayek, there was "no incompatibility in principle between the state providing greater security in this way and the preservation of individual freedom."

It is worth noting, not so incidentally, that the great philosopher of the market was writing about health care rather than earthquakes or tainted food or untested drugs in the passage quoted above. But the principle is the same -- and ought to be remembered whenever we hear the preposterous din of the Tea Parties and their corporate sponsors.

Joe Conason writes for the New York Observer.

COPYRIGHT 2010 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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