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, [...]