Democracy and Natural Disasters

In the wake of a massive hurricane that has caused considerable damage and loss of life in several states, it’s worth asking how well democratic governments handle natural disasters. In this recent post, I summarized evidence showing that democracies generally handle disasters much better than dictatorships (even after controlling for a society’s wealth). Elected office-holders know that a large loss of life might lead to retribution at the polls, and act accordingly. Dictators have much weaker incentives to protect their people in such situations.

However, I also explain how political ignorance makes disaster policy less effective than it might be otherwise. “Rationally ignorant” voters over-reward disaster relief spending and under-reward disaster prevention spending, even though the latter is demonstrably more effective. They also give politicians insufficient incentives to prepare for very rare but extremely devastating disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the massive earthquake that hit Japan earlier this year.