Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bureaucratic inaction in action

Following the tragic Haitian earthquake, private groups and government aid has been flooding the island nation with the intention of helping, but according to CNN a lot of it is getting bogged down on the way.

"It's terrible," said Eric Klein, head of disaster-relief agency CAN-DO. "There's got to be coordination."

Medical aid is particularly needed, Klein and others said.

"There are medical supplies just sitting at the frigging airport," Klein said while sitting in the cab of a 1,200-gallon water truck near the heavily damaged presidential palace.

Klein appears to be of the belief that coordination of such a large effort can be accomplished by using competent, trustworthy people in a top-down approach. However, another quote from the article is a little more revealing to the problem.
The Geneva, Switzerland-based Doctors Without Borders complained this weekend that U.S. air traffic controllers in charge of the Aeroport International Toussaint Louverture were diverting aircraft carrying medical supplies and other humanitarian aid. U.S. military flights were getting top priority, the doctors group said.
It appears we do have people in charge, and they are not placing value on the same things the activists are.

There are different categories of aid volunteers. Haiti needs people who can give medical attention to the sick, rescue people from debris, provide security from violent opportunists, distribute meals, rebuild houses and many less publicized tasks. All of these specialists are important to the relief effort, but as Friedrich Hayek wrote in the Road To Serfdom
"The illusion of the specialist that in a planned society he would secure more attention to the objectives for which he cares most is a more general phenomenon than the term specialist at first suggests... we all think that our personal order of values is not merely personal but that in a free discussion among rational people we would convince the others that ours is the right one."
It's normal for the medical volunteer to think that medical aid is more important than hunger aid, or for the security enforcer to believe more harm will come from unrestrained anarchy than lack of proper housing. All of these specialists are part of the solution, but the best way to fit them together is a puzzle too difficult for one person or committee.

Who can really say that feeding 100 people is more important than healing three, or protecting four businesses from looters for a week is more important than repairing the roof on one house? A central planner has to place a value on all these things, and its impossible to value them in a way everyone will agree upon.

One alternative to a centrally-planned system is a market system. Doctors Without Borders would be able to bid on runway time at the airport. The group may not be able to outbid the US military, but it could outbid a construction company.

That does mean some groups with more capital will be able to push their way around, but is that any different than what they are doing in the political process right now? Groups have to both possess capital and be willing to give it up for what its members believe has value.

How chaotic would such a system be? About as chaotic as the lines at a supermarket. Both are examples of "spontaneous order," where each player uses his own knowledge to act in a limited realm. When each supermarket shopper looks for the shortest line, all lines end up roughly equal and everything runs smoothly and peacefully.

Instead of a self-organizing system that uses the knowledge each individual player has, the Haitian recovering is bogged down with a centrally-planned system that is desperately trying to organize a flood of aid from all over the world with a limited supply of information. That is why there are crates of medical supplies sitting idle at the airport and volunteers stranded without transportation. It's not incompetent people in charge, it's reliance on an overloaded system that couldn't possibly coordinate this many parts.

This isn't merely hypothetical. Wal-Mart responded to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina faster than FEMA did. Partially that was motivated by good will, and partially for the PR, but for the people being helped, the motivation didn't matter.

U.S. Represenative Alan Grayson isn't a fan of anyone who criticizes the Haitian reconstruction effort or the government in c
harge of it:
"Rush Limbaugh, if you want to say one good thing about him, at least he's consistent. Maybe he thinks all those people who are trapped under the rubble in Haiti are going to be freed by the invisible hand of the free market."
Perhaps Rush Limbaugh didn't say that, but I am. While the invisible hand won't personally pluck heavy objects out of the way, it will allow aid groups to respond much faster and smarter than a centrally-planned system would.


  1. Here's something that sounds good, but I may be missing some crucial piece of information. Wouldn't a market-based relief coordination plan, such as charging aid groups for runway time, bring money into Haiti? I'm under the impression that the airport is owned by the Haitian government, so that would be the equivalent of foreign aid - and all the problems that can lead to.

    If there are private airports, then foreign dollars would be coming into Haiti and placed in private hands, which can then be spent anywhere.

    This all sounds good, but there could be some hidden danger I'm unaware of, so I didn't list this as a positive in the original post.

  2. "but is that any different than what they are doing in the political process right now?"

    Your argument assumes that because capital is used in the political process, it is justified in the political process. It then goes to say the it is justifed in the domain of humanitarian aid because it is justified in the political process.

    So your conclusion is based on a logical jump drawn from circular reasoning.

    A decentralized approach may be a better solution, but is capital the correct driving force?

  3. Are you saying I'm assuming because groups are flexing their political muscle to "win" in the political game, that I believe this is justified, and therefore the optimal way to run the political system?

    I am not saying this. I am saying this is the reality of the political system. If you want to compare a Utopian political system to a market system, the Utopian system will always win. However, you first have to provide a blueprint for a Utopian system.

    If instead you meant general capital instead of political capital, than I'm afraid I don't follow.

  4. What does a Utopian political system have to do with a market system. Isn't the sphere of politics separate from the market except to allow for it's functioning?

    It seemed like you were saying that groups were flexing their financial muscle to win the political game, so why not do the same with relief efforts. Or were you simply using that as an example to say you have to be willing to spend to get what you want?