Democracy, Natural Disasters, and Political Ignorance

The massive destruction and tragic loss of life in the recent earthquake in Japan will surely rekindle debates over how well democratic governments handle natural disaster. The good news is that democracies handle natural disasters much better than nondemocratic nations. On the other hand, the quality of democratic disaster policy is still negatively affected by widespread political ignorance.

I. Why Democracies Handle Disaster Better than Dictatorships.

Recent research shows that democratic governments handle natural disasters much better than dictatorships do, even after controlling for differences in wealth. The reason is not hard to figure out. If a natural disaster kills thousands of people, even the most ignorant voters are likely to notice and blame incumbent political leaders, whom they can punish at the next election. As a result, democratic leaders have incentives to try to reduce the death and destruction as much as they can, given other political constraints. Dictators don’t have any comparable electoral incentives.

II. How Political Ignorance Makes Disasters Worse.

Unfortunately, voter ignorance still has a negative impact on democratic states’ disaster policies. It is rational for most voters to pay little or no attention to the details of public policy. And rationally ignorant voters often make serious errors as a result of their ignorance. Natural disaster policy is no exception.

Economists Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra provide evidence that voters reward politicians much more for disaster relief spending than disaster prevention spending, even though the latter is far more effective. Why this bias? Probably because disaster relief spending is far more visible to poorly informed voters than is prevention spending. After a disaster happens, the media constantly covers relief efforts, often in dramatic fashion. Many people watch, in part because the coverage is entertaining. By contrast, there is little media coverage of disaster prevention policy, probably because most viewers would find it boring, and rational ignorance ensures that few will follow the issue merely to become better informed voters. As a result, Healy and Malhotra argue that politicians have an incentive to misallocate public funds, thereby wasting resources and increasing the number of fatalities caused by natural disasters.

Political ignorance also probably contributes to widespread corruption and interest group favoritism in the distribution of disaster aid. If voters were knowledgeable and kept close track of aid spending, they would punish such corruption at the polls, thereby giving officials incentives to crack down on it. But they are not and do not. As with other crises, natural disasters given interest groups an opportunity to divert public resources to themselves in the name of combatting the emergency.

Another problem caused by political ignorance is that voters also tend to blame politicians even for those disasters they can’t control, such as droughts and shark attacks. When the electorate focuses on such bogus issues, they lose the opportunity to judge incumbents by their performance in areas where they can make a real difference – including natural disasters that politicians can genuinely mitigate.

III. The Special Case of Extremely Rare Large-Scale Disasters.

Finally, there is the special case of large but very infrequent disasters. Politicians have strong incentives to try to mitigate disasters that happen regularly. There is a good chance that such a disaster will occur at some point during the incumbents’ term in office, which means that he or she is likely to prepare for it in order to reduce the chance that a large loss of life will lead to punishment at the polls. “Normal” earthquakes hit Japan fairly regularly, which is one reason why the Japanese are very well prepared for them, as I personally had occasion to observe when I was in Tokyo during a 7.1 Richter scale earthquake that resulted in little if any damage.

By contrast, some large disasters, such as the recent 9.0 rated earthquake in Japan or Hurricane Katrina, happen only once in many decades. The probability that such a disaster will hit during the tenure of incumbent political leaders is very low. Therefore, incumbents may well choose to underprepare for them and instead spend public funds on more visible programs that will have a greater impact on their electoral chances. If voters were well-informed, they would punish such myopic policies at the polls. However, most voters know little or nothing about disaster prevention policy, and are unlikely to notice if politicians don’t devote sufficient resources to preparing for rare but large-scale catastrophes. Perhaps the voters will notice when the rare disaster finally does strike. By that time, however, the officials who made the relevant spending decisions years ago will be long gone.

This factor likely helps explain why both the state and federal governments failed to build strong enough levies to protect against a hurricane the magnitude of Katrina, even though Louisiana was a major recipient of federal infrastructure grants. It also is probably one of the reasons why we are currently failing to devote sufficient resources to asteroid defense. The chance that an asteroid will hit during the tenure of the incumbent president and Congress is extremely low, thereby giving them little incentive to devote resources to stopping it. But if a large asteroid does hit us, it could destroy civilization as we know it, just as an earlier asteroid strike wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.

Whether ignorance-induced political myopia contributed to the recent loss of life in Japan remains to be seen. Perhaps nothing could have been done to mitigate the disaster beyond the precautions that were actually taken. Alternatively, it’s possible that additional precautions would not have been cost-effective even if they did help at the margin.

Overall, democratic governments tend to handle natural disasters much better than dictatorships do. But political ignorance is still an important drag on their performance in this field.

UPDATE: Various commenters suggest that voters’ flawed evaluations of disaster policy are the result of irrationality rather than ignorance. This is likely true to some extent. But notice that rational political ignorance also ensures that voters have little incentive to rationally evaluate the information they do know. And voters with little or no knowledge are more likely to be irrational in evaluating it, in part because their very ignorance makes it less likely that they will notice any mistakes they might make. Political ignorance and political irrationality are not distinct and separate problems. They are integrally linked.

UPDATE #2: The rating of the Japan earthquake has been revised upward from 8.9 to 9.0 on the Richter scale. I have edited the post to reflect this change.