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Laissez-Faire Earthquake Lessons

As terrible as are the human and material costs of Japan’s recent earthquake and tsunami, it is more than starry-eyed optimism to note that things could have been much worse. Indeed, there is an important lesson to be learned, one that will likely go unheeded by today’s short-sighted, narrow-minded, budget-cutting conservatives in the United States.

The simple reality is that as a result of its own history (and geology) Japan is seismically the best prepared country on Earth, which has almost certainly saved thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of lives. Maybe more. According to today’s New York Times, “Hidden inside the skeletons of high-rise towers, extra steel bracing, giant rubber pads and embedded hydraulic shock absorbers make modern Japanese buildings among the sturdiest in the world during a major earthquake. And all along the Japanese coast, tsunami warning signs, towering seawalls and well-marked escape routes offer some protection from walls of water.”

In an American political environment marked by a knee-jerk insistence on cutting costs and eliminating government rules and regulations as “unnecessary” and “business unfriendly,” it might be useful to be reminded that building codes, for example, save lives.

Fortunately, the dead hand of Milton Friedman hasn’t pushed laissez-faire capitalism upon the Japanese, as it threatens the United States. The Chicago school of economics had nothing but disdain, for example, for building codes, arguing that the all-mighty market would simply discriminate against shoddy construction and that consumers, free to make their own informed choices, would reward builders who make safe and solid houses.  Who needs a “nanny state” when the market is free to work its magic? In fact, we all do!

Here is today’s New York Times, again:

“Unlike Haiti, where shoddy construction vastly increased the death toll last year, or China, where failure to follow construction codes worsened the death toll in the devastating 2008 Sichuan earthquake, Japan enforces some of the world’s most stringent building codes.”

Let’s hear it for building codes, health and safety regulations, mandatory standards for public education, and all sorts of helpful government intervention that would make Professor Friedman spin in his grave … and the Tea Party be damned.

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