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Haiti Needs Freedom

Created: 29 January, 2010
Updated: 13 September, 2023
4 min read

   The heartbreaking devastation of Haiti shows again that as deadly as Mother Nature can be when acting alone, she is far more lethal when she conspires with poverty. The immediate cause of the deaths of the hundreds of thousands Haitians was the earthquake, but most of those people might be alive today if Haiti weren’t poor. And why is Haiti poor? Because for centuries foreign and domestic tyrants exploited the Haitian people and blocked their routes out of poverty.

   Thus those deaths are on the heads of anyone who stood in the way of Haiti’s economic development.

   Poverty kills and, as the late Aaron Wildavsky used to say, wealthier is healthier. The 7.0 earthquake that leveled Haiti was about the same magnitude as the San Francisco earthquake of 1989. But that quake killed about 60 people. Why the mind-numbing difference? The accumulation of wealth in the United States permitted the development and use of technologies that make buildings more resistant to earthquakes. And what makes the accumulation of that much wealth possible? Economic freedom — or at least a significant degree of it.

   Economic freedom means that people are free to trade, produce, and engage in entrepreneurship, in a division of labor, without government interference. To have truly free markets, people must be able to work and invest secure in the knowledge that the state will not confiscate the fruits of their labor. Further, truly free markets require that the government not regulate economic activity. While force and fraud are legitimately barred from social interaction, all voluntary exchange is left unmolested.

   This does not mean that free markets are “unregulated” or “unfettered.” In fact, they are strictly regulated — by free competition. As long as politicians are not funneling privileges to special interests or otherwise protecting cronies, competition will keep things honest, providing alternatives to workers and consumers when they are unhappy with the jobs and products being offered.

   For Haiti the problem is that centuries of foreign and domestic tyranny have kept individual liberty and free markets from blossoming. The U.S. government played a role in this, with its nearly 20-year occupation (1915–1934) in behalf of sugar interests. But Haiti has suffered under a series of domestic tyrants too, including the brutal Duvaliers, who were backed for a while by the U.S. government as a Caribbean cold-war counterweight to Castro’s Cuba. Even under democracy, Haiti found little relief from corruption and stifling control. It has been the recipient of government-to-government “aid,” but that has not created prosperity; rather it lined the pockets of crooked officials.

   Conventional wisdom would say that Haiti did not get enough “aid” money or that it went to the wrong people. In fact, the record of “foreign aid” is miserable everywhere. It empowers rulers and politicizes society by making government the source of money, economic projects, and favors. It cannot improve society because governments are inept and ignorant in economic matters, and because people need freedom above all else if they are to become prosperous. (Of course, “foreign aid” is also illegitimate because it is money stolen from the taxpayers of the donor country.)

   What now? That’s really two questions about the immediate period and the longer run. Rescue and relief should be left to private organizations and donations. It is simply a myth that if the U.S. government doesn’t take charge, nothing will get done. Americans are generous and will give ample amounts of money (as they always do). There is no generosity in govern-ment’s compelling us to help.

   In the longer term, Haiti needs economic development. But it will not achieve it until the people demand individual freedom, the rule of law, property rights, and civil liberties. Only then will they begin to produce and trade and accumulate wealth. There is no short cut.

   The U.S. government can do something. First, abolish all barriers to trade. Shame on the U.S. textile industry for opposing this over the years. Second, open the borders. The U.S. government vows to send “undocumented” Haitians home, but no Haitian should have to suffer while waiting for his rulers to get out of the way.

) and editor of “The Freeman” magazine.