Does Capitalism Save Lives?

I was watching CNBC and happened to see this panel about how the number of Americans killed by natural disasters has declined over time. It was also noted that, in early 2010, fewer people died in Chile’s earthquake than in Haiti’s earthquake.

The discussion quite reasonably outlined how improvements in emergency preparedness, building codes, and infrastructure help to protect people from natural disasters. But two minutes into the segment, anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera declared, “The lesson is that capitalism actually saves lives.”

Really? Until then, it sounded like government regulation and public infrastructure save lives. It’s also true that economic development saves lives, and capitalism is one potential route to economic development. But that does not mean that capitalism, in and of itself, saves lives.

Haiti is a capitalist economy. That has been ensured by plenty of “structural adjustment” from international financial institutions. Yet it remains woefully underdeveloped.

I also checked out the op-ed that inspired the panel. It notes that the average annual US death toll from disasters was significantly lower in 1980-2009 than in 1940-1979, and would have been even lower except for Hurricane Katrina. However, Katrina was so deadly not due to a lack of capitalism on the Gulf Coast, but due to under-investment in critical public infrastructure.

The real story is that well-regulated economic development with investment in public infrastructure saves lives. Put that on a bumper sticker!

- Erin Weir is Senior Economist with the International Trade Union Confederation and a CCPA Research Associate.

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