Libertarian Humanitarianism

I’m violating something of a rule of mine to post here as this isn’t a Chicago issue but a few posts on the blog regarding the recent tsunami drive me to put my own two cents in here.

First, I believe that in a perfect world, government action in areas struck by natural disaster should be limited to applying violence to criminals in areas where the rule of law is entirely absent or has significantly broken down. If you’re stealing rice or other disaster aid to make a buck and letting others die, I’m all in favor of having the US marines (or whoever is handy) put a bullet in you.

Governments do violence very well and that, ultimately is their proper job. They do it so well that an entire class of thieves has arisen who insinuate themselves in these organizations and their creatures (such as the UN) to steal while being protected by sufficient force and the custom of sovereignty that they can do so with impunity.

Still living in that ideal world, it would be best if private groups did the actual job of providing aid to bypass those government thieves. Private aid groups, at their best, are the most efficient providers of humanitarian assistance. Where failures occur, private groups are punished without much fuss as their donors simply turn elsewhere.

Moving to the real world, we would have needed to radically remake things decades ago for private aid to rule the roost in ameliorating the recent tsunami catastrophe. Since we haven’t, we go with what we’ve got and do the best we can as human beings, doctrine be damned.

Still, we do see some short term adjustments like the US’ coordinating council move to ensure that the UN’s pack of thieves don’t shift from Iraq’s oil for food to the Indian Ocean disaster relief effort. This is as it should be. Those who wish to actually influence disaster relief efforts for next time and tilt them toward fewer thieves feeding on aid and minimizing wasted overhead have two areas to concentrate on:

1. Promoting private aid starts by first counting it in the “aid totals” used as scorecards. By only counting government to government aid, private contributions are given 2nd class status. The hierarchy needs to be reversed.
2. Demanding criminal accountability for government thieves who take commissions to let aid get through, who steal out of aid warehouses, etc. Hunt down the thieves and put them in the dock. It’s not like the big scale thefts are much of a secret.

Disaster recovery is never going to run entirely smoothly. It’s always going to have some breaks in the system. The Chicago School has always had a great deal of practicality to it. We should always make it clear that critiques are for preparation for next time, that efficiency arguments are there to save lives, and that the wolves in sheep’s clothing should never have a free shot at our wallets, no matter what the circumstances.

13 thoughts on “Libertarian Humanitarianism”

  1. I agree with your libertarian outlook on aid delivery but permit me to go off-topic.

    I searched for but could not find a contact email for the site. I enjoy it very much but are you aware that it displays poorly in Internet Explorer?

    I’ve noticed it for months (I check the site daily) and finally tonight ran it in Firefox — no problems.

    At any rate, in IE whole lines of text display partially (illegibly). I’m sure you’re aware of it but thought I’d bring it up and I apologize once again for posting against topic.

  2. Craig, thanks for the feedback about the site. I tried to make it look good in both IE and Mozilla but clearly it isn’t perfect. The workaround for the IE problem you mention is to increase the text size (“View” menu).

    There’s a “Contact” link at the top of the list of contributors. We aren’t trying to hide, so perhaps I should make the link more conspicuous.

  3. TM, I was listening to a Harvard doctor/professor the other day who’s been involved in disaster relief for while now. He mentioned that dead bodies aren’t really the problem everyone (including me) thinks they are.

    According to him, the single biggest problem is the mixing of sewage (from latrines and septic systems) into the stored fresh water supplies. Lack of clean water and uncontaminated food leads to dysentary. Apparently, when you get dysentary, you get a fever and severe diarrhea. Your body attempts to kill infections through highly elevated internal body temperatures (leading to sweating) while simultaneously rinsing your gastro tract clean. That combination sucks all the available water out of your body. You then die from severe dehydration.

    The US Navy has dispatched 6 or 7 specialized ships from the region, each capable of producing 40,000 gallons of fresh water per day. They also carry large quantities of sealed food. I got the impression the Navy keeps those ships prepositioned in the area as a contingency; I suppose for war operations.

    My point is that we need to be able to marshall government owned resources in a situation like this. Those ships, when combined with the purchase and operating costs of things like helicopters and helicopter carrying ships, amounts to tens of billions of dollars worth of investment; far beyond the capabilities of private charities.

    In addition, I’d argue that there’s value in having a central coordinating agency at the government level. Someplace to act as a central clearinghouse for information and resource allocation. Hence the need for an agency like USAID. Less bureaucracy is always better, but a certain amount is necessary and unavoidable.

    it displays poorly in Internet Explorer

    Does that surprise anyone? We should be encouraging people to abandon IE with all possible speed. It’s riddled with security flaws and doesn’t even include basics like pop-up blocking. God I hate those things. Whoever invented them should be flogged in public. Then shot. Their bodies apportioned for wolves…

    Load Firefox.

  4. Thanks TM,
    I ruminated for two days on a way to channel my distrust of this “relief process” into a more positive advocacy, and away from the cold abstraction of human lives.

    You have done my work for me with your post.

    Michael’s excerpt of my original comment omitted my mention of the Transnational Progressive movement, which I contend is greatly served by these sorts of inter-governmental, cross-border wealth transfers. Each one serves to confirm the morality and reasonability of leveraging the “rich” nations to send money to allieve mass victimhood that falls outside our national borders.

    This is the larger “Thief” I wanted to address. Private Aid could starve this movement by bypassing its patrons.


  5. Michael Hiteshaw – Why does the Navy own these ships? Why aren’t they leased for when they need them and made available for relief purposes when not needed? Are they combat ships?

    An increase in efficiency of use is not just about reducing the outright thievery. Why own when you can lease and get a break on your lease payments when relief work takes them from you?

    This is not a short term reform but a huge shift in military procurement strategy. The benefits have to be proven. There’s a lot of work to do and significant risks if it’s done wrong. That doesn’t mean that such a reform isn’t worth doing, merely that it has to be carefully considered and designed.

    As I said at the outset, errors in disaster response today have to be noted, discussed, and fixed for disaster response in future. Only the smallest of changes are worth doing right away and mostly on the back end of things, in administration.

  6. You seem to have little understanding of military operations TM. No one is going to buy and then lease a ship to the US Navy if it will only be paid for when it’s used.

    Military operations require massive redundancy as power projection, which requires massive resources available for that projection for a very short time is fundementaly wasteful. This means the machinery for that power projection will never be useful for much else.

    In this case a few of the navys support ships, likly desalinization plant have been deployed in the disaster area. No war commander can wait for negotiations to aquire plant from civilian contracters so the navy keeps a “prudent” amount of this capability on hand.

    You have shown here in your response to 100,000 + deaths in Asia what real libertarians are about, excuse me while I go puke.

    Do What Now ??? … Standards and Practices !

  7. TM, when you think aobut it military operations are approximately equivalent to a natural disaster. In order to sustain operations, the military must provide all the services to its own personnel that it is providing to the tsunami survivors, clean water, sanitation, shelter, food. No one knows how to provide these things in a non-market fashion better than the military. That is why the military is inherently wasteful. It does not use market signals.

    That is why the Navy owns the ships and that is why no other nation can project power like the US nor can they relieve the victims of disasters as well.

  8. Sometime in the next few days the USS Bonhomme Richard will arrive off the devastated coast of Sri Lanka, with the III Marine Expeditionary Force embarked. There is not an entity on the planet better equipped to deal with the emergency that these young Americans will face.

    Aid is poring into the region from around the world, from governments and from citizens. But there is one near insurmountable problem: logistics. The airports in Banda Aceh and Colombo are swamped with aid and might as well shut down, because supplies are moving off the airfields at a trickle.

    Bonhomme Richard and III MEF have 40 heavy lift helicopters, a flight deck that can handle seven of them at a time, and the maintenance facility to keep them operating. It has three air cushion vehicles that can carry 75 tons across the beach and inland. It has a large number of amphibious troop carriers able to move 5 tons of cargo across the sea to the people who need it. None of these vehicles rely on the port facilities that have been swept away by the tsunami.

    The ship has a state of the art surgical hospital equipped to deal with the mass casualties of high intensity combat. It is capable of deploying emergency medical services forward, under any conditions. It has a desalinization capability that can deliver hundreds of thousands of gallons of clean water to people who will die without it.

    The ship embarks more than 1800 Marines, bright, idealistic, strong, highly motivated and well disciplined. These young men are trained in humanitarian and disaster relief, because the military has long been tasked, via Congress, by the American people with the mission ahead of them.

    In the coming weeks the Marines and sailors of the Bonhomme Richard will save many tens of thousands of lives. They will do so with an efficiency that will far surpass the efforts of any of the dedicated relief workers in the region. They will do more good in Sri Lanka than they could possibly do in Iraq.

    Unless you act now, TM Lutas. There is still time. If you hustle, you can meet them on the beach, and explain to them that they should be in Iraq, killing and being killed, not in Sri Lanka saving lives. You can explain to them that, say, Wal-Mart is better suited to that mission.

    You can persuade the Marines that if the US government would only stop meddling in the market, why, Wal-Mart and MicroSoft and GE will outfit their own MEFs to cope with the need, guided of course by Adamís invisible hand.

    Or, if you canít be bothered with a trip to the real world, maybe you can sit there at your computer, and puzzle out the difference between ideology and common sense.

  9. PenGun – Essentially, what I advocated was looking to see whether desalinization and other traditional assets used for disaster relief be moved to the merchant marine, an organization that is as old as the US and has a proven record of responding well. Maybe such ships would spend more time in use providing clean water in 3rd world islands instead of being parked, idle in Diego Garcia and other regional naval storage facilities. If the prospect of more clean water in the 3rd world makes you want to puke, by all means go ahead and I hope it hurts. If you’ve gotten some sense, perhaps reading a merchant marine faq might be useful.

    Richard A Heddleson – What I’m advocating is a bottom up review to see how much of the US (and other) military logistical tail can be moved into a merchant marine type setting that will permit the resources to be used more effectively. This can potentially provide two benefits:
    1. These economic assets will see greater civilian use and less military cost
    2. If there is no actual need to militarize them for disaster, they can remain in civilian hands and avoid USG paperwork and diplomatic friction freeing up those dollars for better use, like more aid packets for the survivors.

    Of course, there are ways to do this innovation badly which is why you don’t try shifting things of this magnitude in the middle of current disaster relief operations. You study it properly and implement this between disasters in a reversible way.

    An island might contract with a desalinization ship to help meet growing water needs and create a system of cisterns so that the ship is just “topping off” water reserves when it visits. In case of disaster, you go into full blown water conservation mode to make the cisterns tide you over the time you’ve lost your water purification source. In case of war, you make sure your cistern system is big enough that you can build capacity in time if there’s a long war in the making.

    Such conflict contingencies can be planned, just as businesses plan for the loss of their guardsmen during wartime. I guess what I’m really advocating is a sort of RFP for a conditional privatization if the proposals look good enough.

  10. Tough Love Hurts,
    Bangladesh loses hundreds of thousands of its citizens to coastal flooding every decade because folks quickly forget the prior typhoon, and move their families back onto the coastal marshlands. Why? And what can the
    US Navy, taxpayers or a UN agency do about that?

    Aid programs, debt forgiveness, and global welfare are not the answer. In fact they allow these incomplete nations to avoid the internal restructuring and political change required to become whole and independant. The countries put energy into developing internal mechanisms for receiving and distributing aid, instead of ones for generating it.

    I hope that before the next disaster hits, the local governments will have enacted real reforms, and built an effective, self-funded warning and emergency response system, and thus denecessitated any need for this sort of costly global relief in the future.


  11. Jody – You seem to entirely misunderstand my point. Perhaps you might consider the 60 odd Israeli professionals who aren’t in Sri Lanka aiding tsunami victims right now because they wear the IDF uniform. A more private dominated process might have a means of accepting aid without getting political over it. Lately Greece and Turkey are getting civilized over things but I believe similar problems occurred between them several decades ago.

    Furthermore, I explicitly said that this sort of reform is not to be implemented in today’s disasters but for next time around. Your fanciful idea of free market libertarians turning the marines back at the beaches with copies of Friedman, Mises, and Hayek tomes in their hands may be entertaining but have little to do with reality, even in a sarcastic fit of hyperbole.

    The US has known and implemented in policy a privatization of military assets since the Revolutionary War in the merchant marine. Shifting desalinization and other noncombat ships and personnel to the MM seems like a reasonable initiative. The problem of refusing personnel aid from Israel is, one day, going to hit us. The conventional position in the US will be to say to hell with them and withhold aid in the form of skilled personnel. I suggest that there might be a better way.

    It seems that you are suffering from some malady where you do not read what I’ve actually written and simply substitute some sort of caricature in its place. The alternative is that you’re simply a policy bigot or hack and just hate libertarians.

    Steve – Tough love is based on love. It’s very important that nobody, on any side, is ever confused on this matter. You can see how some people are primed to get very angry about reform even when the reforms under discussion are designed to increase the number of people who can be helped out of whatever charity monies come in.

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