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Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The Poverty of Standards

Radical libertarians be warned: (HT)

If Haiti has any building codes, I was unable to ascertain exactly what they amount to or where they apply. A project that was ongoing in 2007 under the auspices of the Organization of American States (OAS) put up a website that stated Haiti has no national building code, and was focused on developing one. According to news reports, any building codes that exist are merely on paper, and people use cinder blocks that are basically home-made, reportedly weighing only about 12% of what the same size block would weigh if it was made under U. S. standards. Reinforcing bar is used sparingly, if at all, and when people need more room they just go down to the homemade cinder-block store and pile another story or two onto their house. Radical libertarians might do well to study Haiti as an example of what happens when government absents itself completely from the supervision of private and even public construction. Things can go well for a while, but when an earthquake hits, the devastation is nearly total.

The author then stumbles onto the real source of Haiti's woes, but keeps walking.

The average Haitian in a country with the lowest per-capita income in the Western Hemisphere cannot afford to pay that much, unless he wants to live in an earthquake-proof building the size of a phone booth. 

What will have to change if the next earthquake is not to produce equal devastation?

Clearly, the people will need to demand that the government get serious about building codes. 

OK. The problem is that people can't afford better built homes, so the government should force them to build better built homes? Haiti could have possessed the most elaborate building code in the world, fully compatible to American standards, and that would only have made the situation worse. Most people in Third World countries do not build shoddy homes, or fail to hire qualified engineers, out of childish stupidity. They can do no better. 

Living in cinder block death traps may not seem especially wise to Canadians, living in a country far richer than Haiti, but it is probably a rational choice for people living in that society. Doesn't seem that way when whole cities collapse in seconds, but life is about risk and return. In Haiti and Canada. The risks a desperately poor person takes may seem suicidal to the better off, but for the poor they can be perfectly reasonable. Living in a shoddy cinderblock house is probably a step up from a tin or wooden shack. It's probably far safer due to a more obvious and pressing concern, fire. A collapsed wooden shack is less dangerous to the inhabitants than cinderblock, but a wooden shack is more likely to catch on fire from an overturned stove or carelessly discarded cigarette. Massive fires happen all the time in cities built of wood, much of London was destroyed in 1666 and Toronto's downtown core in 1904 from out of control fires. Magnitude 7.0 quakes happen only rarely. Allocating your very scarce resources, in such a way as to stave off a more likely danger, is perfectly sensible.

I began by saying that had Haiti possessed and enforced a building code, as the quoted author advocates, it would have made the situation worse. People build poorly mainly because they are poor. Building regulations are followed in Canada or the United States because people can afford to follow them. If the choice is between living in tents or wooden shacks, or breaking the law then common sense thing is to break the law. Which is what most people do in Third World countries. 

Since out of the necessity they break the law, they are perfect prey for the government classes. As the author, and practically every observer of Haiti notes, the country is fantastically corrupt. For many people corruption is some sort of pharaohonic plague delivered upon certain countries, perhaps for having annoyed the Gods of Regulation. The source of corruption, however, is often the law itself. When laws lack popular support, or as in the case of Haiti would be too onerous to follow, ordinary people will seek to circumvent the law.

Corruption is when the state is saying one thing, and the ordinary man in the street is thinking and doing something else. Had the government of Haiti rigorously enforced stringent building codes, which its citizens could not have followed, this would have generated yet another enormous engine of corruption. In addition to devoting their meagre savings to building a ramshackle home, they would have to spend extra resources on paying off government inspectors to leave them alone. Otherwise an inspector would have stopped construction, or ordered the demolition of whatever was built, out of concern for 'public safety.' Another gross misallocation of resources in an already poor country. The author suggests near the end of his post that building codes could be adjusted for Haiti's level of economic development. 

This assumes that the people of Haiti could have built better, they were just too short-sighted to do so. Government, which is some how to be more far sighted than the people it governs, is asked to strike a fine balance between what modern engineers deem safe and what can be afforded. Regulation is often a lagging indicator of building standards. The private sector generates new ideas and processes, these gradually become standard and then government mandates a certain process or technology. Regulation is only effective when the vast majority of practitioners already adhere to the principle embodied by the regulation. If a standard is mandated before it is widely accepted, it is either ignored, or forces consumers to remain in older and lower quality housing stock. Practically any building code for Haiti, given its very low level of economic development, would either be non-binding (people would ignore it), or it would curb only the most egregious practices and have a limited impact on the quality of existing and new housing stock. The root of the problem is Haiti's low per capita level of productivity. The rest, so to speak, is only a symptom. Haiti doesn't suffer from too little government, but from a government that fails to protect its citizens from force and fraud. Which is not surprising, considering the government of Haiti is the country's leading generator of both.

Posted by Richard Anderson on February 17, 2010 | Permalink


I've actually read articles where the authors claim that we have safer buildings in North America because we have more stingent building codes.

So many errors of causation and so little time ;)

Posted by: Charles | 2010-02-17 7:38:52 AM

That is like forcing the poor to buy new cars or health insurance.

Posted by: Floyd Looney | 2010-02-17 9:38:04 AM

PUBLIUS, great post. It is lack of economic freedom that is the real tregedy. Have a look at this post http://cafehayek.com/2010/01/a-tale-of-two-quakes.html

In it, Don Boudreaux states this very well.

Posted by: TM | 2010-02-17 9:39:02 AM

"They can do no better. "

Why does Master P. keep walking? Why not ask why they can do no better?

Haiti has a mean IQ of 72.

IQ and the Wealth of Nations
Book by Richard Lynn, Tatu Vanhanen; Praeger, 2002.

Posted by: cando | 2010-02-17 11:15:53 PM

From where do these people come? Building codes or lack of them have absolutely no relation to why Haiti is the way it is. The people there suffer more than enough from their government and do not need imported building codes imposed on them. It is the whole bloody system that needs to change.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-02-19 7:03:28 PM

Haiti has been given billions in foreign aid and very little has filtered down to the poor. We are giving 12 million to rebuild the Presidential palace. I would make more sense to me to send a ship load of 2x4's and forget about the useless government. Other than giving some aid in food production and clean water technology I feel we are wasting our time in the long run.

Posted by: peterj | 2010-02-20 7:30:05 PM

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