Nobody was especially surprised earlier this week when Pat Robertson, poster boy for the wingnut faction of evangelical Christianity, asserted that Haiti’s devastating 7.0 earthquake was divine payback for a 200-year-old “pact with the devil.” To Pat Robertson, every disaster, natural or man-made, is a vengeful God’s way of putting people on notice that they should have listened, and better start listening, to Pat Robertson.
I don’t claim to know the mind of God. I’m not even going to argue with you about whether or not there is a God. But this time I think Robertson has a point, and I’m not talking about the one on top of his head. Haiti does have a longstanding pact with the devil, and while that pact probably had nothing to do with the earthquake, it had everything to do with the severity of the earthquake’s effects.
The history of Haiti’s revolution is a book-length affair that I can’t cover in a column, but suffice it to say that Robertson’s version of Haiti’s “pact with the devil” alludes to the 1791 slave rebellion, which was allegedly launched with religious ceremony by Vodou priest Dutty Boukman.
The real pact with the real devil — government — came later, as Haiti labored under the “governorship-for-life” of Toussaint-Louverture, the “emperorship-for-life” of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the “kingship” of Henri I and “presidency-for-life” of Alexandre Pétion, the indemnity regime of Boyer, 32 coups, 20 years of US occupation, the Duvalier dictatorship …
With the usual suspects screaming hysterically about Haiti’s potential post-earthquake “descent into anarchy,” the obvious question is whether Haitians wouldn’t have been better off with 200 years of it!
Haiti’s history is proof of Oliver Wendell Holmes’s error in claiming that “taxes are the price we pay for a civilized society.” He had it exactly backwards. Haiti remains one of Earth’s poorest nations precisely its governments have kept it poor.
On paper, Haiti’s burden of government doesn’t look especially heavy: The top income tax rate is “only” 30%, as compared to 35% for the US. The US government takes 28.2% of GDP in taxes; Haiti’s only 9.4% (source for these numbers and, except where specified, the ones to follow: Heritage Foundation, 2009 Index of Economic Freedom).
The real tax rate — the true percentage of wealth siphoned off from productive use by the state in one way or another — is much higher, though.
Inflation is a hidden tax — instead of demanding cash on the barrelhead, government simply reduces the value of the money it “lets” you keep by printing more for its own use. Haiti’s government levies that tax at an average rate of about 11% per year.
Another hidden tax is corruption. A dollar paid to government is a dollar paid to government, whether that dollar appears on a check to the official revenue agency or comes out of your wallet as “baksheesh” to a corrupt cop or customs inspector to get something done or make something go away. Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks countries from least to most corrupt, has Haiti tied for 168th place among 180 rated countries. As of 1998, Haitian “Finance Ministry inspectors found that 23 per cent of the names on the government payroll were bogus” (Tearfund, “The Cost of Corruption” [PDF]). The only good news in that factoid is that only 77% of government employees are actually real and out collecting bribes!
Then there’s the cost of doing business — creating wealth through the production and trade of goods and services. Time, they say, is money, and nowhere is that more true than with business startups. Every day of government delay means unrealized production of wealth. The world average for obtaining a business license is 234 days — onerous enough. In Haiti, it’s more than three years. As for the other red tape barriers to opening a business, the world average is 36 days; in Haiti, more than six months.
It’s likely that the real cost of government in Haiti comes to 50%+, not 9.4%, of GDP … and percentage of GDP isn’t a very good way measuring the real impact of government. That impact falls hardest and most immediately on the poorest, and most Haitians are poor — the average per capita income is $480 per year (source: Nationmaster).
As you watch the pictures and newscasts coming out of Haiti, reflect on the causes of the devastation.
How many buildings collapsed because their builders could afford to pay taxes and permit fees and inspectors’ bribes or reinforce the foundations, but not both?
How many injured lie in the streets instead of receiving treatment because the wealth that could have sent their children to medical school was instead stolen to build presidential palaces and employ bureaucrats?
How many sit starving because the cost of government left them living hand-to-mouth instead of stocking their pantries for a day like this?
Government may not be to blame for this earthquake, but it’s largely to blame for the heartbreaking severity of its impact on Haitians’ lives. Anarchy would be a dramatic improvement.