A curious article over at Foreign Affairs about the efficacy of democracies in doing better to protect citizens from earthquakes.

Is it because democracies are simply richer and so build better buildings? No:

In a democracy, leaders must maintain the confidence of large portions of the population in order to stay in power. To do so, they need to protect the people from natural disasters by enforcing building codes and ensuring that bureaucracies are run by competent administrators.

… Earthquakes in politically sensitive areas such as the capital may threaten autocrats, but high-casualty events elsewhere do not; politicians respond to the desires of their immediate constituents and regard the needs of others as far less salient.

It matters little that the means exist to mitigate the effects of disasters if politicians are not incentivized to implement them. Despite high casualties, autocrats can expect to keep their thrones.

On the other hand, democratic leaders who fail to prevent natural disasters from causing calamity are replaced. As such, democrats plan and react to natural disasters, while autocrats do not.

No doubt there is something or other in this argument. The hot breath of angry voters on a politicians plump neck no doubt catches said politician’s attention.

That said, if the issue is incentives this article surely incentivises leaders to become autocrats – why put up with all this democratic hassle when you’re likely to be thrown out of power for something which was not your fault?

My beef with the piece is that it somehow assumes in a mechanical way that ‘democracy’ is only about power being dispensed downwards in a notably more efficient way than happens in autocracies. The true virtue of democracy – toughly enforcing building codes!

It’s far more interesting than that.

In a democracy people themselves have power.

The power to sue other people (and indeed the government) if they do not do their jobs properly. The power to work for private corporations or research labs and create better, stronger materials. The power of transparency so that people can see what designs are being used and how contracts are awarded. The power of using the Internet to find global best practice in earthquake prevention techniques. And so on.

Not that all of this works well 100% of the time. But these things are mutually reinforcing, and the overall impact is to empower and incentivise everyone in a better direction. The system as a whole is more responsible and responsive.

The article contradicts itself:

In China, the government only half-heartedly assisted the remote province of Qinghai after an earthquake in 2010 and suffered few political consequences for its inaction. But when an earthquake hit Sichuan in 2008, the Chinese government — wary of protest in this politically and economically powerful center — undertook relief operations that won the approval of much of the international community.

Ha! Having seen that disasters annoy the masses, the crafty Chinese autocrats lifted their game. And became more effective autocrats. Nay, they won the ‘approval’ of the ‘international community’. Tra-la.