Thinking about the Tsunami

The latest death toll from Dec 24th’s tsunami in Asia is at 150,000 and rising. 400,000 thousand people have become refugees and 94,081 have been confirmed dead in Indonesia alone. (Reuters as of 1/04/05) A tragedy of this magnitude deserves our consideration, especially of two questions: why did so many die, and what can be done to minimize the destruction of such events?

Conventional explanations abound. Environmentalists blame overpopulation, deforestation, and tourist exploitation; Marxists blame the West for the poverty of poor nations; politicians claim that a lack of emergency preparedness, housing regulations, and tax funds are to blame, and that coerced charity is the fix; religionists assure us that man and science are powerless against nature, and if anything, man must now pray and sacrifice his wealth to the suffering because suffering is man’s natural state, appeal to God is the only remedy, and altruism is the moral ideal.

While there is some truth in these answers, they are all fundamentally mistaken about the significance of natural events to man’s condition. They are right in that the tsunami is a powerful natural event that neither government regulations, nor charity, nor prayer, nor even our current technology can make a dent in. They are also right in stating the poverty is the primary factor of the death toll, and that better buildings, warning systems, emergency preparedness systems, and better science can save many lives.

The errors in the conventional analysis are the claims that more state controls, sacrifices, Luddist primitivism, or acceptance is the solution. The absence of freedom and technology coupled with an altruistic moral code is in fact the very cause of the death toll.

Note the huge contrasts between the death tolls suffered at the hands of nature in primitive and industrialized societies. An earthquake in California that kills a few might kill dozens of thousands in Iran or India. A seasonal tropical typhoon in the Indian subcontinent kills hundreds or thousands while a much more powerful hurricane kills one or two in Florida. A drought-induced famine killed 1.2 million in Ethiopia, but a La Niña-induced drought in the Southeast U.S. managed to slightly raise food prices. (And a 50 year long drought in the USSR killed 30 million.) There has never been a case of mass death in a modern, industrialized society, but death by natural disasters is a yearly occasion in the rest of the world. Why is that?

It is not the lack of regulations or a lack of democratic government – countries like India and Benin are democracies and have plenty of regulations, yet their populations remain at poverty levels. Luxuries like buildings codes are neither possible nor desirable in these places: no one could afford such housing, and if states attempted to enforce them, homelessness would be the main result. Besides, who is more qualified to judge the safety of his property– the owner, or some meddling bureaucrat? All the emergency systems in the world are useless when telephones and radios are rarities.

It is not a lack of charity that caused so many to perish – and no amount of charity can cure the tribalism, religious fundamentalism, traditionalism, and xenophobia that keep the majority of the world’s population poor. In Indonesia, a helicopter carrying aid was welcomed by the arrows and spears of frightened natives who had probably never seen an aircraft. An Israeli group that shipped 70 tons of aid to Sri Lanka (more than any other country) was denied entry by its government. Shortly after the disaster, the UN was immediately on the scene to form housing camps – for its personnel, and immediately formed assessment teams to coordinate other assessment teams, while American GI’s did all the work and were blamed for their competence. Both groups are there at the American taxpayer’s expense, but even $2 billion in aid won’t replace wrecked fishing boats, flooded rice paddies, and washed out tourist hangouts – only the self-interest of the affected individuals can do that.

The only real solution to natural disasters is to allow free men to pursue their self-interest – including their regard for their own safety. Ultimately, only the creation of a wealthy, technological society can overcome the challenges of nature.

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