For some time, I have been reading Thomas Sowell's book Applied Economics, Thinking Beyond Stage One. It is not a hard read, it is just that I scatter books all around the many places I might find myself when I have a moment to read. This book was in one of those many places. Generally, I am concurrently reading about 12 to 15 books, many of them only a page or four at a time before I am back in motion. This book was copyrighted in 2004, so he does not address the Haitian earthquake of 2010. But, he does address one of the reasons why Haiti is so grindingly poor. The last chapter of the book discusses The Economic Development of Nations. Sowell notes:
Another of the functions of government that affects economic development is its role in providing property rights -- or failing to provide property rights. Many Third World countries suffer from the fact that, while property rights may exist, they are not realistically available to vast numbers of people. In some of these countries, a majority of the economic activity takes place "off the books" in the underground economy. For example, most of the housing in Egypt and Peru has been built illegally, whether because of numerous restrictions and red tape that impede building housing legally, or because of costly legal processes which poor people are unable to afford. In Egypt, where 4.7 million homes have been built illegally, legally registering a lot on state-owned desert land requires 77 bureaucratic procedures at 31 agencies -- and these procedures can take five years or more. In Haiti, it can take 19 years to acquire property rights. In some countries, bribes are necessary to get officials to expedite legal processes, and often the poor are unable to offer a sufficient bribe.Now imagine yourself an average Haitian citizen. No, you cannot do that. That is impossible. OK, just do your best to imagine that you are very poor and do not have sufficient means to bribe the Haitian government officials to speed up your quest for property rights for the home or store you want to build. You also cannot afford to have no home or business for 19 years. You have to earn a living, however hard in Haiti, and you need a roof over your family's heads. But, since you have no property rights, no bank is going to give you a mortgage for the building you must build. Even if you are not too, too poor and you are a rising small businessman, you may not have the money to spare to bribe the officials to get property rights. If you do not hold the property rights, you cannot afford to sink very much money into building a very sound building. You would otherwise, but the risk of having the building taken from you after you build it, especially if it is well-built and therefore very desirable, is just too great to put much money into it. So, everyone builds lousy buildings, which are deathtraps in earthquakes, because you either have insufficient money to build a good building or because you cannot risk it in a building you have no property rights for.
Sowell does discuss how this lack of property rights tends to mire the people of a country lacking property rights in poverty. This is an important discussion and it is also one made at great length in Hernando de Soto's book The Mystery of Capitalism, Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else. For the reasons I gave above, it prevents people from building safe buildings also. It guarantees that a less powerful earthquake in Haiti, with no effective property rights, will kill vast numbers more people than will be killed by a much worse earthquake in Chile, where people have effective property rights.
Natural disasters pick on those who do not and cannot exercise their sovereign individual rights. Some said Gaia caused the earthquake in Haiti because the earth goddess was angry about the failure of the Copenhagen Meeting to force countries into massive energy use cutbacks. Danny Glover said the failure at Copenhagen caused the earthquake in Haiti! But, it would appear that if Gaia was angry about anything, she was angry that the people of Haiti had no effective property rights!