Sometimes it really is all about the regime type

The topic de la semaine around here has been how, regardless or regime type, all governments face domestic politics and political constraints.  Just to push back on that theme, however, it is worth remenbering that not all political regimes were created equal.  For Exhibit A on this theme, let’s wander over to Alistair Smith and Alejandro ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images
THONY BELIZAIRE/AFP/Getty Images

The topic de la semaine around here has been how, regardless or regime type, all governments face domestic politics and political constraints.  Just to push back on that theme, however, it is worth remenbering that not all political regimes were created equal.  For Exhibit A on this theme, let's wander over to Alistair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores "Disaster Politics" essay for Foreign Arrairs (hat tip:  Laura Rozen): 

On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake -- approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti -- but only 500 people died.

The topic de la semaine around here has been how, regardless or regime type, all governments face domestic politics and political constraints.  Just to push back on that theme, however, it is worth remenbering that not all political regimes were created equal.  For Exhibit A on this theme, let’s wander over to Alistair Smith and Alejandro Quiroz Flores “Disaster Politics” essay for Foreign Arrairs (hat tip:  Laura Rozen): 

On January 12, 2010, Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake that caused widespread destruction and killed approximately 222,000 people. The next month, Chile was hit by an 8.8-magnitude earthquake — approximately 500 times stronger than that in Haiti — but only 500 people died.

Why the disparity? For one, Chile rigorously enforces strict building codes, so there was less immediate damage to the infrastructure near the earthquake’s epicenter. The government of President Michelle Bachelet was also quick to act once the earthquake hit. It immediately began to coordinate international and domestic relief efforts to get supplies and shelter to those in need. In contrast, there is no national building code in Haiti, and the country’s government was barely functional even before the earthquake, let alone after….

It is tempting to suggest that a country’s ability to prepare is a matter of money. After all, the United States and Japan are extremely wealthy. However, although wealth certainly matters, politics are more important….

Political survival lies at the heart of disaster politics. Unless politicians are beholden to the people, they have little motivation to spend resources to protect their citizens from Mother Nature, especially when these resources could otherwise be earmarked for themselves and their small cadre of supporters. What is worse, the casualty count after a disaster is a major determinant of the amount of international assistance a country receives. Relief funds can even enhance a nondemocrat’s hold on power if they are used to buy off supporting elites. Given such incentives, autocrats’ indifference to disaster-related deaths will continue. The fix can only be political — leaders will not use the policies already available to mitigate the effects of natural disasters until they have the incentives to do so.

Smith and Flores have large-N data to back up their assertion.  Read the whole thing — there’s some interesting stuff I left out of the excerpt. 

This finding shouldn’t be that surprising.  It’s of a piece with Amartya Sen’s observation that famines occur in autocracies rather than democracies.  It’s also consistent with the argument Smith and his co-authors made in The Logic of Political Survival

If nothing else, it should tell you which kind of government you want to live under in case… well…. you know

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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