All Commentary
Monday, April 19, 2010

Sowing and Reaping Devastation in Haiti

Pictures and accounts of Haiti’s earthquake devastation remind me of a November 1987 National Geographic photograph of Haiti’s border with the Dominican Republic–the two nations “share” the Caribbean island Hispaniola. The photo showed a heavily forested Dominican Republic and a barren Haiti. The caption noted that Haiti was once heavily forested.

I bet some of you are thinking, “Oh no, here comes an ivory tower academic telling us that cutting trees down causes earthquakes. He’s probably a tenured geology professor who couldn’t make it in the real world.” Rest easy, I’m not offering earthquake theories, and while I’m tenured, I’m a professor of economics not geology.

My point is that Haitian land stripped of its trees and Haitian land covered with earthquake debris trace to a common cause. That cause is the dysfunctional state of Haitian private property rights. “Dysfunctional” is charitable–a property-rights vacuum is more apt. The vacuum promotes economic myopia among Haitians. Future benefits–from preserving trees to constructing longer-lived buildings–figure less importantly in economic calculations when the benefits’ recipients are uncertain.

Haiti’s heritage is not a good one. A brutally ruled, slave-centered colony, its independence brought a series of home-grown tyrants. Nevertheless, Haitians necessarily bear the responsibility for the state of Haitian property rights. If not the Haitians, who else, pray tell? Does that mean I’m “blaming the victims” of the landscape devastation for the devastation, be it land stripped of trees or land covered with earthquake debris, including thousands of bodies? Yes.

Haitians sowed devastation’s seeds by trashing private property rights. They reaped the consequences. Don’t forget that the Haitians’ Dominican neighbors didn’t strip their land, even though the Dominican Republic comes nowhere close to being a property-rights paradise. Likewise, earthquakes of Haitian-like intensity don’t necessarily kill tens of thousands–the 1994 southern California earthquake, with a similar magnitude, hitting an area of higher population density, killed fewer than 100 people.

The state of property rights in a country is not an “either/or” proposition. Rather, it lies on a continuum, from very secure to very insecure. The Heritage Foundation regularly publishes an “Index of Economic Freedom,” which ranks nations based on several factors, including security of private property. In the 2010 Index the Dominican Republic ranked 86th (“moderately free”) and Haiti 141st (“mostly unfree”) out of 179 countries. (The United States is eighth and Hong Kong first).

The Dominican Republic and Haiti both rank below average on security of property rights. However, the Dominican Republic’s property-rights score is higher than Haiti’s, exceeding that of 41 other countries and tied with 34. Haiti, on the other hand, is near the bottom, tied with 12 other countries (including Cuba, Iran, and Libya) and exceeding only Burma, North Korea, and Zimbabwe.

Economist Hernando de Soto’s celebrated book, The Mystery of Capital, gives some specifics about the pathetic state of private property rights in Haiti. He estimates that 68 percent of Haitian city dwellers and 97 percent of their rural counterparts live in housing for which no one has clear legal title.

Tell me, if you were building a house for which you have no legal title, how interested would you be in using your resources to build a more durable structure? Not very, I’m sure. Certainly less interested than if you had clear title. After all, you’re unsure about whether someone can come along and take away “your” house, and you’re unsure about your ability to sell the house in the future. The resulting shabby construction won’t cause earthquakes, but it’ll make earthquake-related damage more extensive–even fatal.

Government Landlord

This lack of property title in Haiti is not surprising, says de Soto. For Haitians to settle legally on government (!) land, they must first lease it from the government for five years. Finalizing a lease requires 65 bureaucratic steps, taking two years on average. Then things get worse. Subsequent purchase requires another 111 bureaucratic steps, taking 12 more years–19 years of red tape in a country where, to compound the problem, illiteracy is pervasive.

The 1987 National Geographic photograph was a predictor of the earthquake devastation we have witnessed. A people who have little incentive to delay cutting trees–and when they do cut, to replant new trees–will also end up constructing buildings that crumble like a house of cards in the stress of an earthquake.

The larger lesson is that any effort to “rebuild” Haiti that doesn’t include eliminating this property-rights vacuum will be a case of throwing good money after bad, leaving the seeds of future devastations to germinate. An easy job? Forget it. International “do-gooders” with their quick fixes need not apply.

This article first appeared at

  • T. Norman Van Cott, professor of economics, received his Ph.D. from the University of Washington in 1969. Before joining Ball State in 1977, he taught at University of New Mexico (1968-1972) and West Georgia College (1972-1977). He was the department chairperson from 1985 to 1999. His fields of interest include microeconomic theory, public finance, and international economics. Van Cott's current research is the economics of constitutions.