Haiti, New York, and learned helplessness

Why are we surprised to hear of Haitians waiting for the state to clean up their island, while snowbound New Yorkers wait for the city to clear theirs?

Julie Larsen Maher / WCS / AP
SHE'S NOT WAITING FOR PLOWS: In this photo released by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Zoey, a female snow leopard, navigates the fresh snow at New York's Central Park Zoo in on Jan. 13. Well equipped for the cold of winter, snow leopards have padded feet and the thickest fur of any large cat.

Here’s a simple quiz:

For a mayor running for reelection, which situation would cause the most worry?

1. A minor scandal
2. Discussions of the need for a tax increase
3. Delayed snow removal from residential streets

If you live in a northern state, the correct answer (number 3) is obvious.

Now hold that thought.

I recently wrote a blog post on the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti. I blamed the lack of recovery on the state — a core belief of free market economics.

Yet the comments show some readers look past the state and instead seek an explanation in one of the many other social sciences. The blame has to be rooted in something else. The state is not sufficient.

In addition, an implicit theme can be read that claims we (Americans) would have reacted differently. We would have organized ourselves, gotten to work and cleaned up the mess without the need for outside help — from the domestic state, foreign states, or otherwise.

OK, back to the snow-covered streets of any large northern (and southern, this year, anyway) city.

It does not matter the demographics of the neighborhood, city residents sit helpless until government plows clear their street. To hear these folks tell it, it is the duty of the mayor to have the streets cleared as soon as possible. Shovels that are able to remove snow and ice from private driveways and sidewalks never venture onto a city street. So for days, residents cry out to the city government for help: a cry that is heard every year after every snowfall.

This should not be a shock. Even the hearty and adventurous few who sailed to this continent suffered as hapless fools, at least until they dropped the common ownership nonsense and embraced private property. So my local peers are simply reacting as almost all react when confronted with the commons. [1]

No one should expect the Haitians to react any different than either those who came before us or those who live next door. Without secure property rights, and with a thieving state, even the successful and ambitious lie down in the common fields to await either the hand of the state or some other fate.


[1] Keep in mind that the private parking lots of local stores and malls are being cleared even as the snow falls.

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